Sir Simon Rattle celebrates the 75th anniversary of the BRSO with Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder

GermanyGermany Schoenberg, Gurre-Lieder: Soloists, MDR Chorus, Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of Bavarian Radio / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Isarphiharmonie, Munich, 19.4.2024. (ALL)

Sir Simon Rattle © Astrid Ackermann


Waldemar – Simon O’Neill
Tove – Dorothea Röschmann
Wood Dove – Jamie Barton
Bauer – Josef Wagner
Klaus the Jester – Peter Hoare

Narrator – Thomas Quasthoff

A rather special evening unfolded at the Isarphilharmonie last night: the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary.

For the occasion, the intendant, Katja Wildermuth, delivered a beautiful yet understated speech about the orchestra and celebrated the presence of family members of Eugen Jochum and Rafael Kubelík in the audience. The uniqueness of the evening was self-evident, given the extraordinary feat of assembling so many musicians on stage for a work of such magnitude.

Sir Simon Rattle has spoken on multiple occasions about the Gurre-Lieder, which he discovered as a young man in the Liverpool library and described as the largest score in the collection due to its dimensions. How many conductors can claim to know such a monumental work so well and so early?

They were composed over a period of ten years. The first part picks up the torch from Richard Strauss, while the subsequent, more violent sections are more Wagnerian but also more expressive and modern, reflecting Schoenberg’s stylistic evolution. Like Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten or John Adams’s Harmonielehre, it is a work that seems to extend past music while integrating and transcending it.

Rattle also alluded to the fact that his predecessor Kubelík made the first ‘listenable’ recording of this work. Thanks to streaming platforms, we can appreciate some historical recordings that precede Kubelík’s, revealing how well understood and executed this music is today.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts Gurre-lieder at Munich’s Isaphilharmonie  © Astrid Ackermann

The orchestra here was simply superlative in a repertoire that suits them so well. At no point in such a richly orchestrated score did we feel any harshness or saturation. The balances, particularly between strings and brass, were exceptionally well achieved, showcasing a profound, Germanic sound that few ensembles have managed to preserve.

The technical mastery was such that we could forget the immense difficulty of this monumental work and focus on the characterization of different passages. The orchestral textures at the beginning were full of atmosphere and colors. Later, Tove’s intervention, Sterne jubeln, carried a certain Viennese charm. The orchestral deluge that followed evokes the third act of Tristan und Isolde. The Wood Dove’s song could have been written by Mahler. The modernity and violence of the following two parts hint at what Schoenberg would become.

However, there are a few minor issues. Dorothea Röschmann is a tremendous artist, but she is not quite a Tove. She lacked the Wagnerian volume needed and her middle range did not allow for phrasing. Replacing Stuart Skelton, Simon O’Neill took a while to find his footing. He was somewhat thin in the first part on several occasions. But he regained the dimension of the text in the final two parts’ imprecations and especially showed great solidity. Josef Wagner and Peter Hoare both know how to make the text speak. Every word was perfectly understandable while maintaining timbre and musical line.

As often happens in this work, the mezzo-soprano stole the show. Jamie Barton has the privilege of delivering one of the work’s highlights. She especially has a superb projection that supported her wonderful phrasing. It was a genuine pleasure to see again Thomas Quasthoff onstage. The final part of the narrator revealed unexpected storytelling talents, and his closing sentences were a real emotional release before the concluding chorus, which rivals what Mahler did in his Second Symphony.

Finally, the combined choruses (MDR and Bavarian Radio) were just fabulous: the last passage, Seht der Sonne!, bursts forth in a sunny C major, but the most beautiful moment was the earlier hallucinatory chorus of the hunting scene Des Sommerwindes wilde Jagd, where each section enters distinctively.

A few days ago, Sir Simon Rattle did a press conference to present the forthcoming season which you can find here. One can look forward to such diverse works with Lisa Davidsen’s singing the second act of Tristan and Isolde for the first time, Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Ravel’s complete Daphnis and Chloe, Mahler’s Seventh Symphony and many others but what really came out was a wonderful sense of happiness from Rattle in Munich.

Thus, it was a superb evening, a cause for celebration not just of the past seventy-five years but of the seventy-five to come.

Antoine Lévy-Leboyer

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