Simon Rattle did not exactly slip unnoticed into Carnegie Hall not long ago to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in Arnold Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. With its massed choral and instrumental forces spilling off the stage and up into the balconies, this epic cantata puts any conductor front and center while testing his capacity to rule and conquer. On the other hand, the event did seem like something of a sly tease. Before he opted to take over the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002, Rattle had been hotly pursued by just about every major American orchestra in the land. And if anyone present in Carnegie Hall wondered why, this staggering performance provided the answer and a taste of what we may have missed.
Schoenberg began composing Gurrelieder in 1900 but did not complete it until 1911, a grandiose gesture that bids an extravagant adieu to the nineteenth century and stretches the materials of German Romanticism to the breaking point. Simply keeping this gargantuan, lushly textured score under control is a feat in itself. The performing forces include five soloists, a speaker, three male choruses, and an eight-part mixed chorus, not to mention a vast orchestra containing ten horns, seven trombones, massed violins divided into twenty separate parts, four harps, piccolos and flutes, a set of iron chains, and much else. Even if a conductor can map out the logistics and impose discipline on several hundred musicians, that counts for little if he fails to grasp the complex compositional techniques that produce such a wealth of instrumental color, luscious melody, and dramatic tension. And then, most elusive of all, there is the vision thing, the need to inspire everyone onstage to communicate the poetic ecstasy that Schoenberg found in Jens Peter Jacobsen's poems: the miracle of creation as metaphorically expressed by the doomed love of Waldemar and Tove, continually reborn in the annual reawakening of nature.
Rattle managed all this more successfully than any conductor in my experience, live or on discs. Of course, that would hardly have been possible without the virtuosity of the Philadelphia musicians and the splendid Philadelphia Singers Chorale, who gave Rattle everything he asked for. The sheer dynamic range of the performance was breathtaking, from the whispered pianissimos in the many passages of chamber-music delicacy to that final blazing choral peroration hailing the dawn of a bright new day. Regulating the ebb and flow of the nine Waldemar/Tove songs and Wood Dove's narrative that make up the first third of the score has baffled many conductors, but Rattle feels the sequence as one long, achingly expressive arch, and he presented it as such. Most impressively, he positively reveled in the white-hot spiritual purity that motivates the work. In the precision of his conception and clarity of his presentation, Rattle demonstrated exactly what Schoenberg meant when he said that Gurrelieder holds the key to his whole development as a composer.
The music for the two lovers is just as taxing as anything Wagner wrote for Tristan and Isolde, a fact easily deduced from listening to the earnest if rather labored efforts of Jon Fredric West and Andrea Gruber. Birgit Remmert's rendering of the Wood Dove's lament could scarcely have been more eloquent, though, and there were briefer but telling contributions from Herbert Lippert (Klaus-Narr), Gary Relyea (Bauer), and Franz Mazura (Speaker). But it was Rattle who made the performance so special. He is definitely a tonic in this depressing age of faceless conductors.