Sunday, October 27, 2013

Doves, Ghosts, Defiance and Longing; Gurre-lieder Succeeds in Berlin

"Weit flog ich," sang mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill as the wood dove. "Klage sucht' ich, fand gar viel! (Far did I fly, and seeking grief have found much!)" This refrain from the close of Part I of Arnold Schoenberg's massive Gurre-lieder remained in the ear, in an impressive performance by the Berliner Philharmoniker that was transmitted over the Digital Concert Hall.

Simon Rattle, whose 2002 recording of this work is already a classic, led a detailed accounting of this elemental early work by Schoenberg that will become a jewel in concert archive associated with the digital concert hall.

Rattle was assisted by a solid collection of vocalists led by the American tenor Stephen Gould as Waldemar, who navigated the extremes within this part but also lingered over pleasing colors and shades. He worked well with soprano Soile Isokoski as Tove, and even though the two never sang at the same time there seemed to be a believable connection between them.

The complexities within this orchestral score are legendary. The presentation given by the cameras favored the vocalists, but often provided important angles that helped clarify unusual orchestral textures. The one place we could have used a better look was during that evocative high B written for piccolo in the "Sommerwindes wilde Jagd." Schoenberg wanted that sound to be pianissimo and it almost never can be. The sound in this performance was fabulous! It seemed like a specially constructed whistle of some sort, and it held interest throughout the passage and somehow blended with each of the other instruments that spoke during that scene.

This is a work that begins in the haze of late romanticism, but transitions within itself to end leaning into modernism. This performance made the shifting styles sensible. "Herr Gänsefuß, Frau Gänsekraut" was a significant moment in this transition. The great Thomas Quasthoff was engaging in this melodramatic role. He articulated its rhythms with clarity and found an engaging middle ground between singing and speaking. Several times he created thrilling moments in sustained voice.

If you missed the live transmission, make sure you see the sunrise music. The orchestra has been celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the construction of the concert hall, and here is an opportunity to see how well the hall holds and focuses massive forces. But beyond that, it was a celebration of the process by which a concert of music this rare and delicious can be shared, live, to a global audience.

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