Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder are not performed often, and one reason involves simple logistics. Not only is a professional orchestra of gigantic proportions required, but also five soloists with Wagnerian voices, a narrator, an eight-part mixed chorus, three four-part male choirs, and a conductor crazy enough to try to keep some 400 musicians from going off the rails. That crazy man last night was Kent Nagano, who impressed without reservation in this performance at the Wiener Festwochen. In a sea of musicians who pick up a baton and decide to try conducting, it is refreshing to see a born and bred conductor who knows his craft inside and out. Nagano led this massive beast of an ensemble with precision, energy and skill through some very tricky music, handling Schoenberg’s dense orchestration masterfully.

One of Nagano’s main tasks in the first section was keeping the Vienna Symphony Orchestra from burying the three soloists, soprano Angela Denoke (Tove), tenor Jay Hunter Morris (Waldemar) and mezzo Mihoko Fujimura (Wood-Dove). Not that any of the three lacked the pipes to cut through, but against an orchestra which included ten horns (including four doubling on Wagner tubas), seven trumpets, eight flutes, four harps, a celesta, armies of strings and a rash of percussion instruments including “a number of large, iron chains”, and six kettle-drums, the gods themselves would have to ask the orchestra to rein it in from time to time.

The work opens with an orchestral prologue setting a pastoral tone, full of fluttering strings, winds and harp. What follow are nine songs (alternately sung by Waldemar, a Danish king, and his secret love, Tove) connected by orchestral interludes. They begin heavily focused on the nature surrounding the castle of Gurre and grow increasingly amorous and passionate. Denoke’s warm sound fit beautifully with the orchestral textures, while Morris’ much brighter tenor sound cut through energetically. A dramatic orchestral interlude follows, and then the voice of the Wood-Dove recounts Queen Hedwig’s jealous murder of Tove and King Waldemar’s grief. This is a genius bit of programmatic music, dramatically managed by Schoenberg. As the Wood-Dove’s tale draws to a close, slow triplets in the high winds over a fatalistic plodding in the bass prepare us for the horrific news that it was “Helwig’s hawk that brutally mauled Gurre’s dove”.

In the brief second section Waldemar accuses God of taking away his last refuge of peace and hope when he let Tove die. He calls God a tyrant and says he would happily be heaven’s jester to show God’s faults while all the heavenly hosts stand around and sing his praises.

In the final section things get really crazy. Whereas up to this point, Schoenberg has been firmly based in the sweeping, grandiose, late-Romantic idiom (the influence of Wagner is tough to miss), in the third section the music shifts in a direction presaging Schoenberg’s future. It is much more minimal in orchestration, less melodic and quite motif-driven; closer to the style of his 1909 one-act monodrama Erwartung. It opens with Waldemar waking his men (sung by the male choruses) from the dead and ordering them to Guerre where they wildly carouse (“Gegrüsst, o König, an Guerressees Strand!”) until dawn drives them back into their graves (“Der Hahn erhebt den Kopf zur Kraht”). During their wild night, a farmer (baritone Albert Dohman) sings of his protective measures against the supernatural army outside. Waldemar then sings of his interminable longing for Tove, and the fool Klaus (tenor Kurt Azesberger) complains about being dragged from his grave and forced to ride with the ghostly masses in a blackly humorous song (“Ein seltsamer Vogel ist so’n Aal”). Waldemar then threatens God with violence, should he be separated from Tove in death (“Du strenger Richter droben”). Finally, the narrator (Sunnyi Melles), in a partially spoken, partially sung “Sprechgesang” style, recounts “The Summer Wind’s Wild Chase” (“Des Sommerwindes wilde Jagd”) in a widely scored, post-tonal section foreshadowing Schoenberg’s 1913 work Pierrot Lunaire. Finally the combined choir sings in the appearance of the sun (“Seht die Sonne!”), ending this epic cantata.

What an event to manage! Just thinking of the organization and effort involved in pulling off a project of this scale makes me want to assume a fetal position and suck my thumb. But beyond that, the soloists were excellent; Jay Hunter Morris will want to refine his German pronunciation if he wants to do much more singing in Vienna, but he was well in control of his difficult role, and Mihoko Fujimura’s song of the Wood-Dove was a particular highlight. Furthermore, the Vienna Symphony were impressive, the narrator fascinating, and the choirs (flown in from Spain and Slovakia to enrich the Wiener Singakademie) able to lift the audience out of its chairs by virtue of pure sound production alone. Bravo to all concerned.