Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder is one of the most tantalizing pieces in the repertoire, in a certain way its ambiguous structure represents itself the longing that everyone has deep in his or her heart for a Romantic world for ever lost for modern (or post-modern) mentalities, an intoxication the charms of which are no less powerful in its unreality. In order to illustrate that, Schönberg did not spare any weapon in late Romantic armory, not to mention those borrowed from a new aesthetic universe he himself was then discovering. Encompassing all these music-dramatic demands means that a conductor and his forces can hold nothing back.
This evening, the Konzerthausorchester Berlin proved it has nothing to fear even in a city where competition for orchestras is formidably tough. Even in the most complex ensembles, their sound was consistently rich, warm and flexible. Some moments, such as Mit Toves Stimme in part III, were spellbinding in the beautiful and natural way how the orchestra handled the score’s effects. If clarity could be still improved on, I would blame conductor Lothar Zagrosek’s fondness for loudness. Naturally, this is a piece for large orchestra – but Schönberg’s writing does not need help in this department. The Gegrüßt, o König episode with the male chorus was particularly unclear, the good work of the Runfunkchor Berlin and the Estnischer Nationaler Männerchor barely hearable amidst the orchestral thunderstorm.
The second drawback in this evening’s performance is the choice of light-voiced soloists, especially in part 1, when tempi were really self-indulgent in their languidness. Melanie Diener’s velvety soprano is apt for the part of Tove, but the continuous descents into low register tested her a bit, while the exposed top notes of her last song did not pierce through in their plushness. A short glance in tenor Daniel Kirch’s biography shows that Mozart has been in the core of his repertoire – worrisome prospects for a part usually taken by singers who have the leading role in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in their resumés. As Leontyne Price would say, one cannot sing against the grain of one’s voice. I reckon Kirch can produce some pleasantly heroic sounds as Tamino or Max, but here he was basically covered by the orchestra in permanence. If he envisages a shift in his Fach, I would say the move is still premature. Tenor Daniel Ohlmann showed a brighter edge in his voice as Klaus-Narr, but it seems that the writing is quite high for him, while Ralf Lukas’s Peasant could do with a bit more volume too. Both sang with vigor and sense of “theatre”, it must be said. Actor Udo Samel seemed a bit fazed by having to follow the beat in the final narration. A clearer tonal quality would not be unwelcome either – in any case, it is better not think of Günther Reich’s paramount performance for Boulez on Sony (why is it again that nobody else comes close to that level?). I leave the best soloist for last – Claudia Mahnke’s finely focused, generously produced mezzo soprano, expertly and sensitively coloured in her account of the Wood-dove song.