The ambitious scale and unprecedented instrumental and vocal forces of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (1900-1911) almost defy categorisation, yet whether regarded as a vast cantata or an “opera of the mind” this last “hurrah” of late Romanticism bursts the confines of post-Wagnerian tonality like an overripe fruit and, Janus-like, peers into the future while drawing on the past.

Esa-Pekka Salonen and Camilla Tilling © Camilla Greenwell | Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen and Camilla Tilling
© Camilla Greenwell | Philharmonia Orchestra

Over the course of this magnificent performance from the Philharmonia, Esa-Pekka Salonen unveiled its stylistic trajectory and its Tristan und Isolde-esque tale of doomed love with an unfailing sense of purpose. To the work’s gargantuan assemblage (five soloists, narrator, three four-part male choruses, a mixed chorus and huge orchestra) he provided concentrated focus and brought clarity to Jens Peter Jacobsen’s retelling of Danish myth; whose Songs of Gurre describe King Waldemar’s illicit love for Tove and her murder by a jealous Queen Helwig. His subsequent condemnation of the Almighty and his ghostly night rides lead to a final spiritual reconciliation.

Amongst living conductors, Salonen has directed this score in the region of fifteen times, yet what made this performance so special wasn’t just his grasp of dramatic pacing or his attention to detail and balance or even his effortless command of the music’s changing emotional landscape (all admirable in themselves) but the impressive sight of three soloists performing from memory – lending a quasi-operatic presence that allowed rapturous love songs and nightmarish visions to glow with an unusual intensity.

Chief amongst these soloists was Robert Dean Smith as a dignified King Waldemar who fully projected his longing for Tove in a voice that still has plenty of stamina and able to meet Schoenberg’s formidable demands. Only the outer limits of his range sounded less fulsome, the top occasionally a little thin and the bottom rather gruff, and his raging to God was a rather controlled affair.

His beloved Tove was sung by a radiant Camilla Tilling who occasionally struggled to sing over the orchestra, but there was no lack of poise and tenderness in the intimacy of “Du sendest mir einen Liebesblick” – its Wagnerian influence unmistakable. Michelle DeYoung was a dramatic presence as the Wood Dove but, despite obvious commitment, her fruity vibrato and manner of physically launching herself before each phrase brought little sense of grief or poignancy in her depictions of Tove’s murder. 

<i>Gurrelieder</i> at the Royal Festival Hall © Camilla Greenwell | Philharmonia Orchestra
Gurrelieder at the Royal Festival Hall
© Camilla Greenwell | Philharmonia Orchestra

David Soar was a rich-toned Peasant, while Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was a wonderfully comic and half-crazed Klaus-Narr, who caught the ear and eye in his clear-cut tenor and quizzical expression, superbly responsive to the text’s riddles during the ghostly hunt with its fantastical scoring surging around him. Nature’s renewal and its healing powers brought orchestral transparency from solo strings, woodwind and celesta and vivid declamation from Barbara Sukowa whose characterfully rendered Sprechgesang indicated just how much Schoenberg had turned his back on the musical language with which the work begins.

The men of London’s four conservatoires, and members of Philharmonia Voices, formed a hearty chorus as Waldemar’s ghoulish huntsmen and, if a little lightweight when evoking demonic fervour, sang with precision and commendable ensemble. With the arrival of the “Hymn to the Sun”, the combined choral forces (now including ladies voices) brought an uplifting blaze of C major (brass ringing out gloriously here) to conclude a sweeping account marked by an intensity of expression and unflagging energy from all involved.