Helsinki Festival went epic with Gurrelieder


On Friday evening, two symphony orchestras, three choruses and six soli were mustered onstage at the Helsinki Music Centre. With Susanna Mälkki at the helm, this year’s Helsinki Festival was launched with full throttle with a dazzling performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s vast Gurrelieder (1900-11).

With more than three hundred people onstage, Gurrelieder is an overwhelming sight. Sound-wise, it is truly an one-of-a-kind affair. In terms of form, Schoenberg’s setting of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s text (in its German version by Robert Franz Arnold) defies categorization.

Gurrelieder began to take shape as a song cycle, with piano accompaniment, intended for a competition. However, the competition deadline came and went, and the score, consisting nine songs, ended up in a drawer for three years. When Schoenberg took up the sketches again, he reworked the songs into one continuous piece. With a prelude added, the original cycle was thus transformed into the first part of a larger piece for voices and orchestra.

The first part, conceived in the footsteps of Tristan und Isolde (1857-59/1865), celebrates the illicit love between king Waldemar and his mistress, Tove. By the end of the first part, however, Schoenberg was already moving away from his Wagnerian origins, as is evident in The Song of the Wood Dove, a shattering lamentation for Tove’s death, devised by Waldemar’s spouse, queen Helwig.

Following a condensed, yet emotionally charged second part, where Waldemar rebukes God for his loss, we enter into a fully fledged phantasmagoria of the third part, the cursed nocturnal hunt of Waldemar and his host of ghost knights. Seen through the eyes of a peasant witness and the wraith horde itself, with some sardonic comedy provided by Klaus-Narr, the third part takes up the form an extended operatic scena.

The third part concludes with Sommerwindes wilde Jagd, a combination of melodrama, with its sprechstimme predating Pierrot Lunaire (1912), and vast closing chorus, celebrating a swift sunrise, whose radiance dispells the ghosts of a long, cursed night.

After finishing the third part, Schoenberg was again forced to put the score aside for some years, in order to focus on other projects. Finally, in 1910-11, the orchestration was finished. And what an orchestration it is! The score calls for c. 150 players, and a vast eight part chorus. Every orchestral instrument imaginable is called for in the score, including, for example, eight flutes, ten horns, four Wagner tubas, four harps and a string ensemble of more than eighty players.

Two timpanists and six percussionists are kept busy by Schoenberg. Drums, mallet instruments, keyboards, and bells are called for, with the addition of some musique concrète, provided by the rattling of chains.

Since its Vienna premiere in 1913, Gurrelieder became increasingly popular, with successful early performances in Amsterdam (1921), London (1928) and Philadelphia (1932). Though Schoenberg himself kept his score in high regard, he sought to distance himself from its growing success.

During the prolonged genesis of Gurrelieder, Schoenberg had moved away from its extended tonality into a path leading to atonality and, eventually, dodecaphony. For the composer, Gurrelieder was an echo from the past, albeit a loud one.

A work in transition in many ways, Gurrelieder is, however, a dazzlingly original endeavour, with its multitude of challenges for its performers. It is a piece of extremes, with the most delicate chamber-like passages woven together with massive sonic canvases by the huge orchestra and full chorus.

With his impeccable craft for orchestration, Schoenberg devised a score which makes it possible to balance the orchestra and the voices in a plausible way, for the most time, at least. Still, it is fairy common for conductors to make some adjustments with the choral parts, as suggested in the score. With period brass and gut strings some of the challenges might be more feasibly solved, though.

Still, in the real world, putting together a period ensemble of Schoenbergian proportions would be quite a challenge. Therefore, having the Helsinki Philharmonic and Lahti Symphony onstage to perform the score with Mälkki was nothing short of phenomenal.

And what a fine performance it was!

As for the soloists, maybe the most compelling performances were found in the supporting roles. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Klaus-Narr, a role he sang also for Esa-Pekka Salonen last year at the Royal Festival Hall, was again such a delight, marvellously rooted in splendid irony, and sung formidably.

Katarina Karnéus’s Wood Dove was equally impressive, conveying haunting sorrow and downright horror most movingly. Admirably balanced by Mälkki, the Song of the Wood Dove was one of the highlights of the evening.

With his description of the bone-chilling nocturnal panorama of Waldemar’s hunting horde, Gidon Saks’ peasant provided the audience with an impressive eyewitness account.

Brilliantly narrated by Salome Kammer, the surreal melodrama Herr Gänsefuß, Frau Gänsekraut was yet another highlight. As usual, her part was slightly amplified, an obligatory procedure with modern instrument performance. Still, in terms of stylistic unity, slightly more subtle amplification would have been ideal.

Emily Magee sang her Tove ever so beautifully, although the role itself is maybe not the most fascinating part of Gurrelieder. Still, hearing her is always a profound delight, and this evening was no exception.

For Torsten Kerl, who was still recovering from an ear infection, the conditions on Friday evening were less than ideal. Still, his take on Waldemar was an imaginative one, though every now and then he got overridden by the orchestra.

As for choruses, the joint forces of Polytech Choir, Helsinki Music Centre Chorus and Spira Ensemble carried out their vast task with flying colours. The first appearance of Waldemar’s men ringed out such menacing majesty, and the closing Seht, die Sonne was a blast.

The vast orchestra, with the members of Helsinki Philharmonic and Lahti Symphony fused together, was playing their hearts out. With Mälkki at the helm, the balance between instrumental groups was quite ideal, and the textures were marvellously transparent throughout. Beautifully phrased, Schoenberg’s dazzling orchestration shone in its full brilliance.

A wonderful performance all in all, and the first one done at the Helsinki Music Centre since its inauguration in 2011. Acoustically far more rewarding than the London venues of my previous encounters with Gurrelieder, namely Royal Festival Hall and Royal Albert Hall, the Helsinki Music Centre provided rewarding setting for the long-awaited performance of the Schoenberg epic. Much appreciated.


Arnold Schoenberg: Gurrelieder (1900-11) for soli, choruses and orchestra


Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra

Lahti Symphony Orchestra


Susanna Mälkki, conductor


Polytech Choir

Music Centre Chorus

Spira Ensemble


Saara Aittakumpu, Nils Sweckendieck, Kari Turunen, chorus directors


Torsten Kerl (Waldemar)

Emily Magee (Tove)

Katarina Karnéus (Waldtaube)

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Klaus Narr)

Gidon Saks (Peasant)

Salome Kammer (Narrator)


Helsinki Festival

Helsinki Music Centre


Friday 16 August 2019, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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