Arnold Schoenberg termed Gurrelieder, a massive cantata calling for six soloists, large chorus, and a mammoth orchestra, "the key to my development." This was one of his last tonal works, and by the time of its smash premiere, in 1913, he had left its lush late romantic style far behind. The poems by Jens Peter Jacobsen tell the story of the 12th-century King Waldemar, whose illicit love for the beautiful Tove causes his resentful queen, Helwig, to have her murdered. Cursing God over his fate, Waldemar is condemned after his death to ride the sky nightly in a wild hunt for Tove.
Simon Rattle rightly calls Gurrelieder "the world’s largest string quartet." Despite its sheer size and volume, it teems with passages of transparent beauty that demonstrate better than any other work Schoenberg’s unique approach to orchestration. And though Rattle and the Berliners take great pains to bring out its chamber-music intimacy in this live recording, they’re most successful when the music is at its most grandiose, especially a riotous performance of the hunt in part three that makes clear the young Schoenberg’s debt to Richard Strauss. In more delicate moments, such as the exquisite opening sunrise, they’re often undone by EMI’s engineering, which makes the sound distant and opaque. Rattle does have a fine team of soloists, however: Karita Mattila is extraordinary as Tove, Thomas Moser is a solid Waldemar, and Thomas Quasthoff gives amazing expression to the sprechstimme part near the end.
Performances of Gurrelieder tend to be real events, which may explain why there have been so many fine recordings. This one doesn’t hit the same heights as Riccardo Chailly’s 1992 performance, still my favorite, or Claudio Abbado’s Vienna recording, a close second. And no tenor has been able to match Siegfried Jerusalem as Waldemar on both. Still, Rattle has plenty to say about the music, and his version makes a nice alternative to those of Pierre Boulez and Seiji Ozawa, which live on a less exalted plane.