The Philharmonia, conducted by Esa Pekka Salonen at Birmingham Symphony Hall, Friday 27th February 2009

So great is the size of orchestra and choir required to do justice to Schoenberg’s late Romantic epic that it is performed very rarely in its entirety. My school took a small party of students to see the Gurrelieder. This was a huge privilege: perhaps the only time in my life I will see this oratorio, I was also lucky to see Salonen conduct. Like the wood-dove herself, Salonen almost seemed to take off as he led the music. Was he lifting the orchestra or was the orchestra lifting him? Birdlike, always, at the close of the piece he held up his left hand as though cupping the essence of the Gurrelieder in his palm. Thanks to him, the great wave of songs rose and fell exactly as they should: extravagant, lush, precise and clear. A phalanx of musicians left the ground with him and landed again flawlessly. He, the orchestra, the choir, and the soloists had ballon; musicians, they were dancers too. Below is a short account of the work they performed.

Waldemar, Schoenberg’s lover-king protagonist in the Gurrelieder, opens the piece with an image of stillness:

Nun dämpft die Dämm’rung jeden Ton

Von Meer und Land.

‘Now dusk mutes every sound / on land and sea.’ Schoenberg’s oceanic final voyage into Romanticism, with its titanic orchestration,  unfolds from the day’s end, from silence. From nothing and from shadows this oratorio takes us on a journey to a castle (Gurre), where Waldemar visits his lover Tove. After the pair are reunited, the songs take us to darker places:  Tove dies at the hands of Waldemar’s vengeful wife, and, from there, Waldemar  journeys through the afterlife, rising from the dead with his vassals to go in search of his murdered lover.  No fulfillment, no happiness returns us to the peace we experience in those opening lines. Schoenberg’s theme  is longing or saudade, as the Portuguese would have it, and it is this saudade that gives the Gurrelieder its explosive drive. We glimpse rest and peace in the incipit, and every note that follows pulses with a desire for the peace of  ‘Nun dämpft die Dämm’rung jeden Ton.’ What doesn’t move creates movement.

From stillness, two choirs, two timpanists, a celeste, vast woodwind and string sections, four concert harps–even two piccolos–produce such a ‘call-note’ of longing that audience members feel obliterated by it. Hearing it, we are dislodged beautifully but violently from ourselves. ‘Holla’ sing the male voice choir in unison in part three as they hunt through the forest. The chase is on through the darkness to first light. Evening and morning, the last day.