Sydney Symphony Orchestra 2024 Review: Gurrelieder

By Gordon Williams
Photo credit: Daniel Boud

We can be grateful that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor Simone Young has a passion for the music of Arnold Schoenberg in this, his 150th anniversary year. On Friday March 15th, it led to the first performance in Sydney of Schoenberg’s concert-drama “Gurrelieder,” a massive work that was first performed in Vienna 111 years ago, by which time the composer felt its importance had been surpassed by early atonal works of his, such as “Erwartung” which Sydney audiences have heard.

But it’s a massive persuasive late-Romantic work which has the potential to attract an audience that by and large would not flock to later Schoenberg. In fact, Schoenberg was so annoyed by the reaction of those first Vienna listeners on Feb 23, 1913 (it was enthusiastic!) that he turned his back on them, annoyed that these very same people could not, would not, appreciate his latest style. How might he have reacted to the enthusiasm of these Sydney audiences on Friday March 15th, and reportedly Saturday March 16th? One hundred and eleven years later, on the other side of the world, his youthfully-conceived work was met with a frankly rapturous reception.

What an enterprise this was – an orchestra of 140 musicians, augmented by instrumentalists from the Australian National Academy of Music in Melbourne. Add to that six vocal soloists, a choir of 285 singers, with the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs (chorus masters Brett Weymark, Elizabeth Scott and Tim Cunniffe) augmented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus (chorus master Warren Trevelyan-Jones) and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra Chorus (chorus master June Tyzack). No wonder the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall stage was nearly doubled. And just to continue with the sheer statistics, think of the distance the Tasmanians traveled to take part in this historic event – 656 miles (or 1,056 kms), if you travel in a straight line.

But impressive as are these raw statistics, we can be grateful for the caliber of performance Young evinced from the performers. It was cohesive, persuasive and beautiful. Young’s broadly looping gestures conveyed the curvaceous amplitude of this intensely rich score. This wasn’t just a massive exposition of “orchestriana,” but proof that Schoenberg’s massive forces widened the palette as much as raised the volume, as Young drew out this or that detail of the numerous countermelodies, motifs or gestures that are available in the various interludes that embed the original song-cycle that was this work’s origin. Just think of the judicious emphasis of the strings’ col legno “beating” in Waldemar’s second song about spurring on his horse to meet lover Tove or the occasional recurrence of the trumpet’s dropping-intervals motif, just subtle enough in Principal Trumpet David Elton’s “hands” to subconsciously remind us of the sprawling work’s underlying unity. But never did welcome, refreshing, details – distinguishing this performance from others – prevent Young from meeting the challenge of conveying the overall sweep of this vast work.

Listening to the committed advocacy of this massive undertaking an audience-member could understand that Schoenberg – wondering how on earth he could ever top this – might later have invented 12-tone technique as an attempt to enfold all the coloristic information of hyper-Romanticism into sharply inflected and information-dense harmony. And then, of course, there were the payoffs of Young’s management of the work’s knockout climaxes.

“Gurrelieder” is often described as an oratorio but that doesn’t convey the uniqueness of its form – a song-cycle followed by what might be called “cameos” and an optimistically triumphal burst of choral sound fairly close to the very end.

It is based on the 19th century poetry of Jens Peter Jacobsen which relates the forbidden love between a 12th century Danish king, Waldemar (here sung by New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill) and his lover Tove (German soprano Ricarda Merbeth), who is killed by Waldemar’s jealous wife, Helwig, a character who does not appear (the work is not dramatized to that extent).

Part one consists of a series of numbers (never a duet) conveying the progress of their love – expectation, meeting, fulfillment and gratitude. We then learn from a character called the Wood-dove (sung here by British/Australian mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble) that Tove has been killed. (Listen hard or you will miss further news about Helwig.)

In the single number of Part two (“Herrgott, Weisst Du, was Du tatest?”), Waldemar rails against God. Part three sees him punished. A terrified Peasant, here sung with committed passion by Serbian baritone Sava Vemić, sees Waldemar summon his army from the dead, and a character called Klauss-Narr (a Fool) prefers to remain in his grave. Finally, a Speaker (Warwick Fyfe), announces the summer – and in the end some relief from what the program annotator Gordon Kerry called “the unrequited ride of Waldemar and his men”.

Admittedly there were a couple of times in the evening when vocal soloists struggled to be heard above the 140-strong orchestra’s fortissimos, and it may have depended on where you were sitting. But we could be grateful for the tenderness of O’Neill and Merbeth’s solos in roles that traditionally oblige the casting of hefty voices.

Excellent surtitles by Fiona Elizabeth Mizani/ clarified Waldemar’s raging against God (“Herrgott”, Part two) but then again the almost-folkish briskness of O’Neill’s singing of “So tanzen die Engel vor Gottes Thron nicht” provided an effectively simple frame for Waldemar’s complexly superlative descriptions of love for Tove. Later, there was a wonderful dark dryness to O’Neill’s announcement that it was “midnight” (“Es ist Mitternachszeit”) and we could bask in the heartfeltness and earnestness of his “Du wunderliche Tove!”.

From her very opening line, “Oh, wenn des Mondes Strahlen leise gleiten”, extolling the beauty of dusk, German soprano Ricarda Merbeth as Tove had an appropriately enraptured sound. Her top notes on “We go to our graves smiling” were thrilling and uplifting. But maybe one of the most striking moments was her slow rising as if summoned to her grave at the end of Part one. Yes, this was a concert presentation (“Gurrelieder” being kind of an oratorio after all), but the discipline with which Merbeth governed her stage presence here told us visually ahead of time of Tove’s fate (dead), before the Wood-dove had even announced it.

The part of the Wood-dove is almost a keystone of this work. A singer can make an impression with this one solo. Humble’s delivery was gripping as it should be. After all, it’s the Wood-dove who conveys the news of Tove’s death, which we otherwise don’t see. The detail here is worth noting – Humble’s slight gulp on the word “quällt” in the opening line “Sorge quällt mich” (Sorrow fills me) and then the summoning of our full attention – “Kommet. Lauschet” – real tapped out ‘t’s that made a listener want to sit up, even if to receive devastating news. It was remarkable how Humble kept up the tension throughout this long tragic speech.

This performance was presented with an interval. Perhaps that’s one of the interpretative debates that can be had post-mortem – might it have been better without? In the score, Part two almost picks up where Part one leaves off, but there is a change of tonality signaling a very obvious shift of focus if played sequentially, so maybe there is the possibility of a clean break.

But at least the sight of choirstalls filled after interval, gave a visual representation of the fact that much more was in store. The male chorus makes its entrance with a single exclamation “Holla.” One exclamation out of the blue after such a long choral silence could almost be comical, but was delivered here with such penetrating force that it was chilling as it’s probably meant to be (the men represent an army of ghosts, after all)

It’s in Part three that we get those ‘cameos’ mentioned above.

Mention has already been made of Sava Vemić as the Peasant but tenor Andrew Goodwin made entertaining tuneful sense of Klauss the Fool, whose text is almost as elliptical as that of a Shakespearean Fool.

And then we got the beginning of the conjuring of summer – some of the most cohesive playing of the night – as the musical material was passed seamlessly from tuba and bass trombone to celeste to three flutes and three piccolos, oboe, Cor anglais, clarinets, harp. Was this a harbinger of Schoenberg’s later invention of ‘klangfarbenmelodie’ yet still moored to tonality? It was the playing here that also maintained a sense of continuity.

As mentioned above, 39 year-old Schoenberg had felt his style had moved on by the time of “Gurrelieder”’s first performance, notwithstanding slight hints of future directions.

Perhaps the most obvious hint of this future style lies in the part of the Speaker, who delivers his announcement of the summer in the style that Schoenberg later called “sprechgesang”, a kind of sung speech.

Australian bass-baritone Warwick Fyfe’s performance of a part that has been taken by actors like Werner Klemperer (son of the conductor, Otto) or by ex-singers (Schoenberg apparently mulled over the idea of a retired tenor) was magisterial – full of illuminating gesture and direct communication (helping us to ‘see’, for example, the web that the summer wind tore away). Toward the end it was if Fyfe was longing to sing, a moving yearning that led logically into a powerful choral conclusion, testament to music’s ability to deliver the most decisively powerful climaxes.

In the days following this performance, many local attendees acknowledged on social media that they had never heard “Gurrelieder” live. After all, in Australia it has only been performed in Melbourne (although twice!) and Perth. But in Sydney in this March, 111 years on, no-one could have asked for a more convincing recovery of lost time.


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