This new Gurrelieder, a follow-up in some ways to Hyperion’s well-received disc of Strauss tone-poems with the Gürzenich Orchestra (5/13), marks something of a departure for the label. Though recorded in Cologne with a local production team, however, it’s a release that still seems to capture the essence of the label’s ‘house style’, presenting a profoundly musical performance of clarity and intelligence. Technically, too, it’s a formidable achievement, not just in terms of engineering that is transparent and gloriously detailed – especially when heard in Hyperion’s Studio Master download – but in playing and singing that is able to encompass all of the vast work’s demands.
The Gürzenich Orchestra does not, admittedly, make as luxurious a sound as, say, Abbado’s Vienna Philharmonic or Rattle’s Berliners, whose players – particularly the richly seductive upper strings and luxurious horns – bring a greater Romantic swell and swoon to such key passages as Part 1’s Zwischenspiel. The sound Stenz gets from his orchestra is leaner, the strings more silk than velvet, but no less beautiful as a result, offering a more delicate picture of longing in the first part, occasionally displaying more languour than ardour; the musical structure and essential clarity are never lost in the clatter of Part 3. And Stenz retains a canny knack for opening the lyrical floodgates when required: the ebb and flow he brings to Tove and Waldemar’s final songs in Part 1 is exquisite.
He’s helped by very fine soloists. Barbara Haveman might not have the compelling charisma of Karita Matilla (for Rattle), but the voice is wonderfully rich and expansive, soaring up to a powerful top B. Brandon Jovanovich brings a rugged vocal handsomeness to Waldemar, and there is a touching sensitivity and slight vulnerability in the timbre – a Heldentenor with a ringing top who retains some lyrical colour. Like Haveman, he has all the notes under his belt. Claudia Mahnke’s Waldtaube is rich-voiced and moving, occasionally reminiscent of Brigitte Fassbaender on the Chailly set – high praise indeed. Gerhard Siegel is a fine Klaus-Narr, though not quite as multicoloured as Philip Langridge (Abbado and Rattle), and Thomas Bauer does his bit for nominative determinism as a lively Bauer. There are benefits, too, to having Johannes Martin Kränzle, a baritone in his prime, filling out the Speaker’s Sprechgesang strongly, without the mannerisms some bring to it – his ‘Ach, war das licht und hell!’ is rapturously done.
Negatives? The massed choruses feel to me as though they’re balanced a little far back, sounding a touch hazy – the concluding ‘Seht die Sonne’ isn’t quite as heart-stopping as it might be as a result. I’m not sure, either, whether Stenz finds as much darkness in Parts 2 and 3 as others. In sum: the set might not jump immediately to the top of a well-stocked pile, but it shines a new light on this fascinating piece and has a fierce conviction and integrity all its own. I can’t imagine anyone interested in the work will want to be without it.