With its all-star cast and fine sonics, the Philips recording of Gurrelieder has been held in esteem for over two decades. Cast well for a festival performance at Tanglewood, it is difficult to consider a finer assemblage of musicians. In addition to the six soloists (including the speaking part assigned to the actor Werner Klemperer), the piece includes four choruses and an augmented orchestra with a scoring that calls eight flutes, seven clarinets, four harps, ten horns, six trumpets, five trombones, and six timpani. This late Romantic work is a sprawling conception of the story of the Danish King Waldemar and his love for Tove, who is mysteriously killed and for whom Waldemar desperately searches. Set around the castle of Gurre, the tragic circumstances of the ill-fated love story has some resonances with Mahler’s youthful cantata Das klagende Lied. Yet Schoenberg’s score rivals Mahler’s in scope, and requires the fine touches Ozawa brought to this recording to communicate well the nuances in the work. As fine as the sound was on the Grammy-winning LP, the transfer to CD offers some enhances in sound that merit rehearings.
Again, the fine cast featured some of the best performers of the time, and while some might quibble with the choice of singers, they all do well. In his relatively brief career James McCracken made some fine recordings, and this reading of Gurrelieder provides an opportunity to hear the tenor in a demanding and sustained role. Some listeners might prefer the sound of a later tenor, like Siegfried Jerusalem, in Chailly’s later recording of this work, but McCracken’s reading is commendable. As Waldemar, McCracken offers an impassioned portrayal of the Danish King, with the yearning implicit in the text made audible in the performance. As the Wood-Dove,Tatiana Troyanos also gave a fine performance in the brief, but critical scene at the end of the first part, which sets up the remaining portion of the story. Likewise, Jessye Norman captured the personality of Tove well, with the kind of control that has marked her performances of other Romantic heroines. Understated, but not undersung, Norman’s Tove is well thought and appropriate to the approach that Ozawa has taken in this recording, which is impressive for his fine control of the expanded orchestra that Schoenberg used in the score.
While other conductors have added their interpretations of Gurrelieder to the discography of this fascinating work, Ozawa’s endures for his solid approach and talented cast. While the sometimes massive sonorities that Schoenberg used to suggest the emotional impact of the tale are impressive, Ozawa also balances such scene painting with the attention to detail that is crucial to the more intimate sounds that are part important when Schoenberg need to bring out the text. As massive as Gurrelieder can be in terms of the forces required, the availability of such an extensive orchestra does not result in a constant assault of sound. Rather, tone colors and textures vary throughout the work, as timbre emerges as a structural device in a work that took shape as its composer worked on the famous Harmonielehre, the text in which Schoenberg outlined his approach to composition, including the idea of Klangfarbenmelodie. Ozawa was certainly sensitive to such considerations when he made this recording of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder decades ago, and it is a pleasure to return to his persuasive reading of this important score.
James L. Zychowicz