SchÃ¶nberg's name can still clear a concert hall, a century after he scandalized the classical world by casting music free from the usual boundaries of tonality. But his early works are among the most lush and romantic examples of late German (okay, Austrian) Romanticism. Gurrelieder is a transitional work — a huge hyper-Romantic orchestral work with a tragic tale of doomed love and at least a brief glimpse at the controversial musical future. Performing the piece is a task not taken lightly: the orchestra is even bigger than that called for by Wagner or Mahler, and SchÃ¶nberg actually had to have specially elongated music paper made to accommodate all the lines of scoring involved. You could say that the piece really needs to be experienced live, but why bother — you could just as easily say that about 99% of the records in any genre and live performances of this behemoth are rare. All of which is to say, mad props to Michael Gielen and the radio orchestra of Baden-Baden, who manage not be crushed under the weight of all those strings, horns and voices.
Gurrelieder (literally, “Songs of Gurre”) is a musical fable writ large, and is supposed to be experienced in one massive, adrenaline-fueled sitting. Nonetheless, there are definite highlights: the orchestral prelude (“Orchestervorspiel”) stakes out the musical territory of the late 19th century when SchÃ¶nberg began the work (though he came back to it after he'd taken the leap into 12-tone composition, around 1911). At the top of the narrative arc is a stunningly beautiful aria that would probably have been a hit had it actually been used in an opera: the Song of the Wood Dove (“Tauben von Gurre”). Also notable is the use of the Sprechstimme technique, the pitched-speech he developed for his landmark work Pierrot Lunaire, in the Mother-Goose-on-acid passage called “Herr GänsefuÃŸ, Frau Gänsekraut.” The work is a haunted, nocturnal one — though it is a dark and stormy night indeed — but the final sunrise (“Seht die Sonne”) must rank as one of the most glorious finales in the orchestral literature.