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Schoenberg: Gurre-lieder / René Leibowitz

Release Date: 07/27/2004 
Label:  Preiser Records   Catalog #: 90575   Spars Code: AAD 
Composer:  Arnold Schoenberg
Performer:  Ferry GrüberMorris GesellRichard LewisNell Tangeman,   ... 
Conductor:  René Leibowitz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paris New Symphony Society OrchestraParis New Symphony Society Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Mono 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHOENBERG Gurrelieder René Leibowitz, cond; Ethel Semser ( Tove ); Richard Lewis ( Waldemar ); Nell Tangeman ( Wood Dove ); Ferry Gruber ( Klaus the Jester ); John Riley ( Bauer ); Morris Gesell ( Speaker ); New S Society Ch & O Read more class="BULLET12"> • PREISER 90575, mono (2 CDs: 119:25)

This remarkable recording of Gurrelieder was made in October 1953 for the Haydn Society (!) and funded by pianist Paul Jacobs, who was an avid fan of the work. Happily, conductor René Leibowitz, a friend and pupil of Schoenberg’s, was available for the recording, and they managed to round up four outstanding singers—Lewis, Semser, Tangeman, and Gruber—of whom only tenor Lewis is well-remembered today. This was only the second commercial recording of Gurrelieder, though one review I read online claims it as the first. That honor, of course, goes to Leopold Stokowski’s groundbreaking version with tenor Paul Althouse, soprano Jeanette Vreeland, and mezzo Rose Bampton, issued in a massive set of 78s in 1932, one of the worst years of the Great Depression. That, too, is a fascinating performance, but this one has a leaner sound profile and just sounds much more Schoenberg-like than its famous predecessor.

Despite its boxy mono sound, this performance was reissued in the 1960s as a “Vox Box” (VBX-204), and stayed, for many years, the reference recording of Schoenberg’s great early work until stereo recordings began to appear. Then, it was politely shoved aside and forgotten, but the qualities that made it great in its day are still apparent more than 60 years on. Rhythmically, the performance gets off to a somewhat stiff start; I’m guessing that Leibowitz may have had trouble with the New Symphony Orchestra of Paris counting off the opening beats in the wind passages. But once it gets rolling, it really does take on a life of its own, and seldom, if ever, has every vocal assignment been so well handled. Lewis, Semser, Tangeman, and Ferry all have not only beautiful voices but are expressive, interpreting the words and really bringing the characters to life. (As it turns out this is the only commercial recording made by Tangeman, a favorite singer of composers Ned Rorem and Roy Harris, and highly praised by Virgil Thomson.) Also, as you continue listening to this performance and become adjusted to the sound, you start to notice details in the orchestration that often pass unnoticed even in modern digital recordings of the work.

The bottom line is that Leibowitz imparts a unified structure to the work and plays it with such passion and conviction that it’s difficult to stop listening to it. I have also never heard a performance where the second half, composed much later than the first, still sounds like it belongs with the first and not in some foreign sound world not connected to the beginning. This recording will also make you regret that Leibowitz didn’t record any Mahler; he seems to have a strong affinity with not only the line but also the texture of this music, constantly grabbing the listener’s attention with its unique sound world. I loved this recording and think you will, too.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Gurrelieder by Arnold Schoenberg
Performer:  Ferry Grüber (Tenor), Morris Gesell (Spoken Vocals), Richard Lewis (Tenor),
Nell Tangeman (Mezzo Soprano), Ethel Semser (Soprano), John Riley (Bass)
Conductor:  René Leibowitz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Paris New Symphony Society Orchestra,  Paris New Symphony Society Chorus
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1900-1911; Vienna, Austria 
Date of Recording: 10/1953 
Venue:  Paris, France 

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