Arnold Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” is a massive cantata for a very large
orchestra, choirs, five soloists, and a speaker. This new recording from
2009 was taped in Munich at the Philharmoie am Gasteig, and although
the DVD box indicates a 2010 release, it has just become available this year.
To my knowledge, it is the only performance of this work currently
available on DVD.

Mariss Jansons presided over the massive forces, including the Bavarian
Radio Symphony Orchestra, the NDR Chor, the MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig,
the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, soprano Deborah Voight,
mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura, tenor Stig Andersen, tenor Herwig Pecoraro,
and baritone and speaker, Michael Volle.

“Gurrelieder” is a glorious example of the flowering of late romanticism in
music. Along with such works as Gustav Mahler’s “Eighth Symphony,”
Richard Strauss’ “Alpensinfonie” and Alexander Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy,”
it effectively exhibits what can be done with large performing forces, in the
hands of a composer who knows what he’s doing.

Although Schoenberg completed the work in 1911, most of “Gurrelieder” was
composed between 1900 and 1903. He then set it aside for about seven years,
resuming work on it in 1910. Meanwhile, he had already begun composing in
his atonal style, with such works as the “Three Piano Pieces,” the
“Five Orchestral Pieces” and “Erwartung,” all dating from 1909. Nevertheless,
“Gurrelieder” is a work in the post-Wagnerian tradition, with the final part
showing Mahler’s influence to a larger degree, both harmonically and in his use
of the orchestra.

It is a series of songs set to texts by the Danish poet, Peter Jacobsen, and translated into German. Each of the five soloists portrays a different character
in what is actually a “Fairy Tale Adventure,” in typical late 19th Century
fashion. The choruses are used in the final part, and female voices join in
just for the final “Hymn to the Sun.”

I was impressed with all of the soloists, although Deborah Voight no longer
demonstrated the tonal beauty she had prior to her weight-loss surgery.
Although she still sings with plenty of heft, her instrument now sounds
somewhat “hard and steely,” to my ears. Baritone Michael Volle also doubled
as the speaker in the final part, demonstrating Schoenberg’s first use of
“Sprechgesang” or “Sprechstimme,” a sort of “speak-singing” technique.
Volle sounded very impressive.

The orchestra and choirs were fantastic, and a wide dynamic range was
achieved in this recording, with excellent camera work supervised by
television director, Brian Large. Conductor Mariss Jansons gave a wonderful
interpretation of this huge work, in a performance lasting roughly one hour
and 52 minutes. The requisite number of strings also appeared to be there.
I counted 12 double basses!

My only real complaint is that there are no subtitle options, which are
usually found on these types of projects. This is particularly unfortunate,
considering that there is a seven-minute bonus feature, discussing the
work. At least, a full libretto is provided in the accompanying booklet, along
with an informative essay. That caveat aside, this DVD of “Gurrelieder” on
the BR Klassik label is highly recommended.