Sunday, 3 June 2012

Mehta/Wiener Phil Gurre-Lieder: more Gänsefuß than Gänsehaut

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Musikverein, 03/06/2012

Wiener Philharmoniker, Zubin Mehta

Violeta Urmana, Tove
Nikolai Schukoff, Waldemar
Daniela Denschlag, Waldtaube
Gerhard Siegel, Klaus Narr
Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Bauer
Thomas Quasthoff, Sprecher

Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien
Wiener Kammerchor
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor

It doesn’t pay to be too picky about live performances of Gurre-Lieder: the discography has only ever brought forth partially satisfactory Besetzungen; even though none of the orchestral parts are unmanageable, the sheer size of the thing is intimidation enough; and from a conducting perspective there are numerous ways to perform the piece (and numerous thickets to get lost in). But with an orchestra of this calibre – and rarely does the Wiener Philharmoniker forget to remind us of how good they consider themselves to be – one expects a certain standard. This Gurre-Lieder had its moments, and provided one was content to hear it as a wash, it was more or less satisfactory the entire way through. Whether it stood up to much close listening is more debatable.

So it wasn’t precariously unstable, but the togetherness of flutes and violins at the beginning was rather a crap shoot, which was irritating for the distortion it made of that central motif. Mehta was more preoccupied with what Berg labeled the first motif, of course essentially the same thing, which is why it shouldn’t sound as prominently as it did here; one of the formal joys of the opening is that you hear augmentation leading to prototypical verticalization (cf. 2a-c; a twelve-tone geek’s wet dream, I’m telling you). That is, providing that we hear everything. Elsewhere transparency could be quite good, though unpredictability won out in the end as things tended to veer between this and all-out muddiness wrapped up in plush string tone. While we’re on the opening – though it was a problem the entire way through – it should be noted that the horns hardly distinguished themselves (as is often their wont); there were only the two accurate entries to be heard here. Woodwind mostly piped’n’whistled their way through, which is to say sharply. No, make that painfully sharply. (My ears have still not forgiven the piccolos for that erratic steam whistle of a B in ‘Des Sommerwindes wilde Jagd’). There were a few moments when the trumpets should have been muted, but weren’t. More glaring than dodgy intonation and loss of inner voices from time to time was Mehta’s apparent lack of interest in some of the work’s more sophisticated polyphonic features, like the beautifully constructed canon between violin and cello (be assured, there will be a Küchl rant shortly) in Tove’s first song; here any relation between the two parts was left to the imagination.

In terms of style the first part seemed quite self-contained, certainly not something to be described as Wagnerian, and yet no discernibly Schoenbergian cosmos à la Boulez; just the occasional Mahlerian flare-up once the music had been pootling along for a bit. Second and third parts brought Janáček to mind, though this may be just me; when Rattle conducts this I always think of Elgar. It was there of course, but a lid was kept on the expressionism, and to my mind no big musico-historical point was articulated, which is perhaps no bad thing; when this work is made to bear the weight of the twentieth-century it doesn’t always show off Schoenberg’s best side. Tempi were fine for the most part but occasionally too fast, most noticeably for the trumpets and speaker Thomas Quasthoff.

Soloists presented the usual Gurre-Lieder mixed bunch: I am on the record somewhere as liking Urmana as a soprano, but every time I hear her I am a little less convinced… As Tove she was quite disappointing, sounding rather swoopy and thin of tone on the rare occasions she cut through the orchestra. Her top B was rather yelped too. 11:00 in the morning, though singers do have GPs at this time (and on these occasions I’ve only ever heard marking from two singers). It cannot, however, have been easy delivering ‘O, wenn des Mondes Strahlen’ among other things with a Rainer Küchl solo in one’s right ear (just listen to this). I wanted to like Nikolai Schukoff (in this performance replacing Torsten Kerl), my admiration for his Quint earlier this season having much increased on subsequent listening, but despite sounding Siegmundy to begin with and then – even better – somewhat like Hotter’s Wotan, at least in the middle, like Urmana he struggled to project at times. Top notes were underpowered and tended to hollow out, which made the outstretched arms and clenched fist act seem a little anticlimactic; somebody like Botha would have been a lot less interesting but at least those suckers would have been audible all the way over in the Künstlerhaus. Other parts were good: he was ultimately the least memorable thing about this performance, but for those three or so onstage minutes Alexander Tsymbalyuk made a solid, Russian-sounding impact as the Bauer; character tenor Gerhard Siegel – and here one cannot place too much (positive) emphasis on character – was an excellent Klaus-Narr with good Textdeutlichkeit (here the music sounded curiously like Meistersinger); Daniela Denschlag’s Wood-dove was Erda-like in tone, with all the earthiness and admonition that involves; and Thomas Quasthoff’s unorthodox way with the Sprechstimme will be well-known from the Rattle/BPO recording but seemed somewhat toned down here – even if an element of show-stealing remained, Mehta’s pace was too fast for him to really ham it up.  

Choruses were also a little mixed, I found: their ‘Holla’ was quite electrifying (no iron chains necessary here) but ‘Seht die Sonne’ received a weedy and not so sure-footed start; ‘Gegrüßt, o König’ was a bit shouty, but ‘Der Hahn erhebt’ had, again, exemplary Textdeutlichkeit and rich massed tone. I suppose ‘Seht die Sonne’ got going in the end, though why Mehta didn’t hold that final chord for its proper length was just one of the many question marks I could place over the conducting.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Zwölftöner ,

    watching a dvd some time ago, about Jansons,I saw a couple of minutes of him-Jansons-and the philharmoniker in rehearsal Gurrelieder. Jansons was critical and in the end told the philharmonikers to go home and study the score!

    As for konzertmeister Rainer Kuchl, I heard him a month ago in Schumann fantasy under Thielemann. Great dissapointment.