Sunday 1 March 2009

Philharmonia/Salonen - Gurrelieder, 28 February 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Waldemar – Stig Andersen
Klauss-Narr – Andreas Conrad
Tove – Soile Isokoski
Wood-dove – Monica Groop
Peasant – Ralf Lukas
Speaker – Barbara Sukowa

City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
Philharmonia Voices
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

This was a wonderful opening to the Philharmonia’s series: ‘City of Dreams: Vienna 1900-1935’. A performance of Gurrelieder could hardly fail to be an occasion but the performance was excellent in pretty much every respect. I was reminded me quite how much I love this extraordinary work. It certainly evinces its composer’s unswerving integrity, even if the Wagner references in the choral writing can draw a little close for comfort. It is the most heartfelt of farewells to the nineteenth century yet it also looks forward, especially in the Speaker’s melodrama, to so much of what is to come. Indeed, the work’s progress, marked by its increasingly ‘modern’ orchestration – Schoenberg broke off that work between 1903 and 1910 – enables us to experience an ongoing critique of its earlier self, without any cost to our appreciation of the sheer gorgeousness of Part I.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s performance with the Philharmonia captured perfectly the ever-shifting balance between late Romanticism and early modernism, without ever so much as hinting at the temptation to become duly astringent. We have all, I am sure, heard passionless, anti-septic performances of music from the Second Viennese School, which might have put us off for life. The point is not that Schoenberg’s modernist music becomes less ‘emotionally’ intense, quite the contrary; the sheer concentration of such intensity is what some listeners still find difficult to cope with. Rather to my surprise, the opening was a little shaky, the woodwind – especially flute – figures not sounding fully integrated and exhibiting a certain rhythmic insecurity. Yet there was barely another weakness to the performance. The Philharmonia was on good form as I can ever recall, perhaps even better. Certainly the warmth and silkiness of its strings would have put many Continental orchestras to shame, whilst the orchestral blend was, following that initial uncertainty, almost faultless. To marshal such huge forces is an achievement in itself but Salonen’s true achievement was to go beyond such ‘traffic control’ to engage musically with the work. After the bitter disappointment of Monday’s Flying Dutchman, in which the conductor had proved unable or unwilling to maintain any musical line, this was an object lesson in how to do so. Tempo variations were all successfully integrated into a varying, supremely flexible pulse. Orchestral detail, for instance the beautiful harp figurations, was highlighted, but never too much. And, in the balance, or rather dialectic, between symphonic cohesion and motivic definition, Salonen proved himself as true a Wagnerian as a Schoenbergian. I do not think I have ever heard, in the Wood-dove’s lament, the ’cellos’ evocation of the monk’s sounding of the Angelus so beautiful and so closely integrated into the dove’s narrative. Yet it never stood out as ‘mere’ pictorialism; it contributed to the ‘purely’ musical development rather than detracted from it. What Willi Reich called ‘the work’s infinitely subtle motivic cohesion’ was superlatively served on this occasion. Now I want to hear Salonen in Wagner.

The singing was throughout of a very high standard. Stig Andersen and Soile Isokoski proved sure interpreters of their parts. One might at times have thought them just a little ‘safe’, but it is no mean achievement to have presented so musical and coherent a reading. Isokoski’s experience in Lieder-singing shone through; thought had clearly gone into every word and its relationship to the music. Andersen’s slightly elderly-sounding Heldentenor sounded quite appropriate to Waldemar; unlike so many of his ilk, he can sing the part and never resorted to barking. I do not think I have encountered a better Wood-dove than Monica Groop, her lament as plangently moving as it is possible to imagine and her storytelling impeccable. Ralf Lukas was an admirable Peasant, whilst Andreas Conrad was a truly Mime-like Klaus-Narr, bringing home the similarity to an extent I do not recall previously having appreciated. Barbara Sukowa was at least as excellent a Speaker as she was on Claudio Abbado’s superlative Vienna recording. Her text was so internalised that she could deliver it with a freedom, always intimately connected to the music, which apparently transcended any impression of rehearsal. It was a great pity, though, that the use of microphones was not only so clearly audible, but so crass that she sounded as if she were almost in an entirely different acoustic. Perhaps it is necessary, or advisable, to use microphones here, although I doubt it; if so, however, it really needs to be handled better. The choral singing was equally excellent, the Wild Hunt duly terrifying and ghostly – shades of the Dutchman, mediated very heavily by Götterdämmerung – whilst the sheer honest exultance of Schoenberg’s final hymn to the sun was captured ecstatically.

It was a good idea to provide surtitles, rather than have everyone spending half the time at following the programme – often a line or two behind. However, the translation left more than a little to be desired, not so much in terms of accuracy as with respect to strange infelicities of style, unsure whether it was aiming at archaism or efficient modern rendering. The appearance of ‘Gurre-on-Sea’ was unfortunate, to say the least, evoking images of Clacton rather than Teutonic mystery. And the audience was sadly on typical form when it came to shuffling and coughing. Sometimes the latter is unavoidable, I know, but surely the woman sitting next to me could have waited a little longer than the end of the second bar. The shifting impressionistic textures of the Prelude suffered particularly in this regard. Yet such irritations remained minor in the face of so movingly assured a performance. If the rest of the series lives up to the expectations now engendered, London and various other European cities are in for a rare treat. Next stop: Verklärte Nacht and Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony.