SCHOENBERG – GURRELIEDER | BBC Proms 2017

Thunderous applause from the packed-out Royal Albert Hall — the arena was bursting at the seams — for this thunderous epic. Sir Simon Rattle led the London Symphony Orchestra out in full force, including four harps, twelve percussionists, and about three hundred singers (the London Symphony Chorus, CSBO Chorus and Orfeó Català all together).

King Waldemar (tenor Simon O’Neill) and his mistress Tove (soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek) share a love that transcends death, raising the dead and ending with a triumphant hymn to the sun. Yearning strings swell through unending melodies and eternally crescendoing diminished sevenths. Is it Wagner? No! It’s Schoenberg’s 1913 throwback would-be-opera, the unstageable Gurrelieder (Songs of Gurre Castle), based on Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen’s romantic epic.

Westbroek’s broad and swaggering voice made for a perfectly Wagnerian heroine, while O’Neill’s gentle, soaring tenor was at times overpowered by the gigantic ensemble behind him. Tenor Peter Hoare brought a welcome contrast towards the end of the piece as Klaus the Fool, storytelling as much as possible with his commanding bellow.

Although not strictly an opera, it did seem a perverse choice to not have surtitles anywhere for such a text-heavy, story-based work (especially with unused digital screens just above the orchestra). Eternally cool Sir Simon Rattle hardly seemed to break a sweat, despite the gargantuan, often deafening forces in front of him. A real treat to hear this iconic pairing of orchestra and conductor back together, doing what they do best.

Broadcast on BBC Four Sunday 3 September 8pm.

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