Philharmonia/Salonen: Gurrelieder review – terror, scorn and exquisite excess

Royal Festival Hall, London
Schoenberg’s landmark cantata was delivered with all its ominous fervour on a stellar season-closing evening

The Philharmonia season closed with a performance of Gurrelieder, formidably conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, albeit unevenly sung. Schoenberg’s immense cantata is widely regarded as the ultimate post-Romantic statement, a morbidly erotic work saturated in Wagnerism. Schoenberg, however, broke off composition after completing the second of its three parts, resuming work on the score only after forging the new musical language that defined the parameters of modernism. The final section consequently looks forward as well as back, as The Summer Wind’s Wild Hunt subjects the Wagnerian apparatus to a process of increasing fragmentation before the closing chorus heralds a new dawn.

Salonen underscored the work’s pivotal nature by luxuriating in its Romantic excess even as he charted its dissolution. Vast panoplies of sound gave way to textures of exquisite transparency. There was deep sensuality in the love scenes, and thrilling terror in the spectral ride of Waldemar and his men. Salonen’s attention to detail paid off towards the close, as the themes associated with the lovers are absorbed into the eternal flux of nature as the Summer Wind blows the past away.

Robert Dean Smith and Camilla Tilling played Waldemar and Tove. The former, clean and clear, sounded uninvolved throughout. Tilling, in contrast, was rapturous in her ecstatic evocation of “death, the reviver of beauty”. Michelle DeYoung’s declamatory Waldtaube was more harbinger of doom than voice of grief. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, all irony and scorn, excelled as Klaus-Narr. David Soar was the credulous Peasant, Barbara Sukowa the vivid narrator.

The choral singing, from the Philharmonia Voices and the choirs of London’s four music colleges, was delivered with tremendous fervour and power.

Contributor

Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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