Opera review: Gurrelieder, Usher Hall

Gurrelieder curtain call 5 Mihaela Bodlovic
Gurrelieder curtain call 5 Mihaela Bodlovic
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This is how an Edinburgh International Festival programme ought to end: with a gripping, momentous work of gargantuan proportions, one you rarely hear, and one which represents a pivotal moment in musical history – in this case when Arnold Schoenberg saw behind him the tortured chromaticism of post-Wagnerism, and ahead of him the hunger to mould a radical new language for the 20th century.

Gurrelieder | Rating: ***** | Usher Hall

His mega-cantata Gurrelieder, was the vehicle chosen to whisk us off on such a glorious journey, driven by the massively-inflated forces of the BBC Scottish Synphony Orchestra, a male-dominated Edinburgh Festival Chorus, five soloists and speaker, all under the towering leadership of maestro Donald Runnicles, and formulated by a musical language gathering up the scraps of Wagner, colouring them with whole-tone harmonic treats from Debussy, sweeping up Mahler in its tracks before opening the gates to teasers of the world-changing Schoenberg-to-come.

Add to that Runnicles’ innate ability to cast a spell. That magic was everywhere in the nebulous shimmering of the orchestral opening, in the powerful narrative and spiritual heft of the Danish legend it recounts, in the overarching cohesion of the two-hour performance, and in the translucence, power and potency he elicited from his musical forces.

Outstanding as ever was Karen Cargill as Waltaube, her Wood Dove song a moment to treasure, viscerally rich in tone with consonants capable of cutting through the mightiest din. Anthony Dean Griffey lightened the tone with his Klaus the Jester, a puckish moment laced with cartoonesque decadence. Anja Kampe and Simon O’Neill filled the roles of Tove and Waldemar with emotive resplendence, their near-impossible challenge, well met, being to project ecstatically above the orchestral clamour.

Thomas Quasthoff brought stentorian clarity to the Speaker’s role, Iain Paterson sturdiness to the Peasant, and the Chorus played their part with exuberant precision and vital animation. What a night!