Just a year after Hyperion released its Gramophone Award-winning recording of Gurrelieder, here comes another, from another British label. And it is also an enormously impressive achievement, although perhaps not quite so revelatory. What we have from Edward Gardner and his massed forces – the recordings are based on concerts given in Bergen late last year – is something perhaps a little more traditional, more broadly Romantic. The playing of the Bergen Philharmonic is rich, seductive and sensuous where the playing of Stenz’s Cologne orchestra was remarkable for its clean timbres and laser-like technical precision.
Gardner’s operatic experience means he’s alive to the lyricism and drama of the piece in equal measure: there’s ardent longing aplenty and a real willingness to explore the sheer gorgeousness of the score, as well as a powerful sense of drama where required. Listen out for the tenderness just before we slip into Part 1’s Interlude (at Waldemar’s ‘Wunderliche Tove’), for example, or the tension he creates in the brief Part 2. And all this Gardner achieves without letting the vast forces get out of hand. A couple of climaxes even feel a little reined in (including that of that first interlude), but his control is mightily impressive, as is his ear for balance – helped no end by sumptuously detailed Chandos sound, especially vivid in Studio Master download format.
Among the soloists, it is Stuart Skelton’s unusually human and vulnerable Waldemar that stands out. He sings every word clearly and as if he really cares, while the voice – an instrument that swells generously rather than scything through the texture with Heldentenor steel – is expressive and exciting, even if he doesn’t quite nail every top note. There’s something thrilling about the sheer amplitude of Alwyn Mellor’s Tove, although hearing a Brünnhilde in a part usually cast with a Sieglinde takes a little bit of adjusting.
The one disappointment for me is Anna Larsson’s Waldtaube, her inflexible and opaque contralto communicating little of the coruscating emotion we get from Claudia Mahnke on Stenz’s recording, not to mention other great Waldtaubes on disc – and Gardner doesn’t quite offer the right sort of wrenching climax at the end of her narration either. James Creswell is solid as the Peasant, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke a predictably vivid and lively Klaus-Narr and Thomas Allen a predictably eloquent Sprecher, although he sounds a little stretched at the extremes of his half-notated sing-song.
The choral singing is thrillingly alive and direct, if again not quite as ultra-refined as on the Hyperion set. There, the final minutes were a slight let down in terms of choral impact; here, Gardner’s massed singers are nicely balanced in the sound picture, although it’s a shame at ‘Seht die Sonne’ that the brass are overwhelmed in the texture (listen to Chailly or Abbado here to hear trumpets ride the wave of sound thrillingly).
Quibbles are inevitable with a work – and a recording undertaking – as vast as this but shouldn’t detract from what is a terrific addition to the Gurrelieder discography. As with Stenz on Hyperion, this doesn’t necessarily grab itself a top spot, but it’s another recording available in glorious high-resolution sound that no one interested in this last great flowering of Romanticism will want to be without.