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Schoenberg: Orchestral Works / Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic

Release Date: 09/13/2011 
Label:  Warner Classics   Catalog #: 57815  
Composer:  Arnold SchoenbergJohannes Brahms
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS-SCHOENBERG Piano Quartet No. 1. SCHOENBERG Accompanying Music to a Film Scene. Chamber Symphony No. 1 Simon Rattle, cond; Berlin PO EMI 4 57815 2 (73:40) Live: Berlin 10–11/2009

This unusual program serves to enhance two of Simon Rattle’s discographies simultaneously: It is both an appendix to his set of the Brahms symphonies (reviewed none too favorably by Jerry Dubins in Read more style="font-style:italic">Fanfare 33:4) and an addition to Rattle’s more extensive Schoenberg catalog. Rattle has visited this country before on disc; only the brief Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszeneis (to give it its German title) is new territory for him.

Rattle recorded the Schoenberg orchestration of the Brahms work as artistic director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1984. It briefly shared disc space with his earlier recording of the Mahler 10th Symphony, but was reissued on an EMI double-CD set of music by Schoenberg featuring several ensembles and conductors. That set was reviewed in Fanfare 30:5 by James H. North, who found the performance of the orchestrated Brahms Quartet too cautious, and sluggish in spots. I don’t know if James is any happier with this new performance, but the work has become something of a Rattle specialty, and I think this performance is a vast improvement over the first recording. To me, no Brahms specialist, it is delightfully over-the-top, and a prime example of late-Romantic excess (as well as quite a showpiece for the Berlin Philharmonic, particularly in the bravura finale).

This version of the First Chamber Symphony is something else altogether. Rattle recorded the original score with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group for EMI in 1993, a performance also covered by North in the review cited above; North opined that “the performance seems to aim at making the ensemble sound like a full orchestra,” and Rattle may well have taken such criticism to heart, since this new recording isn’t the chamber version of the Chamber Symphony, but Schoenberg’s revision for full orchestra, completed in 1935.

According to Bayan Northcott’s program note, Schoenberg had grown dissatisfied with what he felt was a lack of balance between the solo strings and the 10 wind instruments of the original version. I would imagine that those of us who are perfectly satisfied with the original version aren’t bothered by this supposed imbalance, but in this alternate version, the massed strings certainly capture the sweep of the constantly evolving themes, and the arrangement invests the work with a more pronounced dramatic quality and weight that suit its tempestuous character (and incidentally calls into question the continued appellation “chamber” symphony). I find this new recording to be a fascinating way to hear one of Schoenberg’s uncontested masterpieces played by a virtuoso ensemble, conducted by an advocate who may not please all tastes but whose sincerity should be beyond question.

The music for an imagined film sequence is by turns suspenseful (“threatening danger”), queasy (“fearful panic”), and violent (“catastrophe”); the overall character of this short piece (about nine minutes) is quite vivid, and the music is reminiscent of Berg’s Lulu without being in any way derivative. I think it’s touching that Schoenberg, in his naiveté, was disappointed that no filmmaker jumped at the chance to include his piece in a film. As a calling card, it should have been quite enticing.

Anyone who imagines Schoenberg to be too analytical and forbidding should hear this disc. The sound is robust and detailed, and the orchestra is, characteristically, brilliant. Highly recommended.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot


I already have fine accounts of two of these three scores conducted by Sir Simon Rattle namely the Schoenberg orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 and the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No.1 in the original version for 15 soloists. Rattle made his recordings with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. They are included in a five disc set titled the Second Viennese School on EMI Classics 4575622. The present performances with the Berlin Philharmonic also demonstrate Schoenberg’s talents as an original and progressive composer as well as an orchestrator. I knew the Accompanying Music to a Film Scene only by reputation not having come across it before on record.
Recorded at live concert performances at the Berlin Philharmonie in 2009 the disc commences with Brahms’s four movement Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor orchestrated by Schoenberg in 1938. Brahms’s score is greatly esteemed a staple of the standard repertoire and according to musicologist David Ewen is, “ one of the supreme achievements of chamber music.” In his career Schoenberg made many orchestrations and reductions ranging from J.S. Bach Chorales to Johann Strauss II Waltzes. At first it seems puzzling why Schoenberg exiled in the USA should want to go to the trouble of orchestrating a chamber score that was widely admired but not often played. Schoenberg gave several reasons for his orchestration stating that as a longstanding Brahms scholar he liked the score and wanted to save the music from neglect. In addition he felt that a good pianist would have the tendency to play too loud and drown out the strings. It was Otto Klemperer who conducted the première of the orchestrated Piano Quartet in Los Angeles in 1938. Schoenberg stayed generally true to Brahms’s orchestration but was unable to resist adding his own coating. Such are the lovely melodies and lush orchestral textures that Rattle fashions in the opening movement that one immediately wonders which Brahms symphony is being played. In the Intermezzo the colourful Berlin woodwind are remarkable together with the shadowy strings transporting the listener to a twilight world of shadowy woodlands glades. Remaining predominantly dark owing to the low strings the rich autumnal textures and russet hues in the Andante could easily have come from Brahms’ pen. Shafts of sunlight threaten to break through in the slightly brisker concluding section. In Rattle’s hands the feel of Hungarian gypsy dance in the Finale sounds wonderful in its orchestral guise with the use of xylophone and glockenspiel reminding me of Shostakovich.

Completed in 1930 Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film Scene followed close on heels of the advent of talking movies in the late 1920s. Schoenberg had been commissioned by the Heinrichshofen Verlag in Magdeburg to write some film music. Composed using the 12-tone system there are three sections with titles to serve as a programmatic outline: Threatening danger, Fearful panic and Catastrophe. No specific film or scenario was given to Schoenberg although this seems hard to accept given the nature of the score. First heard in a radio broadcast in 1930 by the Frankfurt Symphony under Hans Rosbaud and premièred in public in Berlin a few months later with Otto Klemperer conducting, the score is rarely heard today. Don’t expect any of the overblown concoctions from Hollywood composers of the silver screen such as Max Steiner; Erich Korngold and Franz Waxman. Threatening danger casts a strong sense of dark and threatening foreboding. A chill feeling of increasing nervous anxiety pervades the Fearful panic section. Under Rattle’s baton Catastrophe could easily have been a depiction of the horror of trench warfare in the Great War concluding with an image of cities and towns laid waste. It’s all remarkably well performed.
The Chamber Symphony No.1 for 15 soloists was completed in 1906. Cast in a single continuous movement there are four discernable sections; sometimes delineated as five. Schoenberg’s score stands at the transition between the composer of late-Romantic music and the new dawn of the expressionist composer about to adopt 12-tone technique. Schoenberg described the score as, “ The climax of my first period.” The unfamiliar progressive harmonic scheme of the score ensured a controversial première in 1907 in Vienna with some of the audience causing a commotion during the performance. A critic in the Viennese newspaper Extra-Blatt wrote that Schoenberg had written, “… savage, ugly noises which no respectable person would take for music. All this won’t last long. There is no future for him.” Another music journalist in the Berlin newspaper the Signale expressed his disapproval describing the work as, “ a horror chamber symphony”. Schoenberg came to the conclusion that just five strings were out of balance with the ten wind instruments and consequently in 1935 made the version for full symphony orchestra heard on this disc. The first section is warm and Romantic with considerable forward momentum. Agitated and impulsive the Scherzo contains just the right amount of robust vigour. Mysterious and unsettling the slow movement never hints at peace and contentment. In the gratifying Finale Schoenberg’s writing is full of inspiration and ideas with the conclusion joyously high-spirited. Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic respond magnificently to a highly chromatic work that stretches the limits of tonality with its constantly changing temperament. Never has this ‘difficult’ Schoenberg score sounded more homogeneous. 

English music features strongly in the Berlin Philharmonic programme this 2011/12 season. Under Donald Runnicles Elgar’s Symphony No.1 will be performed for the first time with the orchestra since Arthur Nikisch conducted it in 1909. Semyon Bychkov has already conducted the Walton Symphony No.1 and Daniel Barenboim will present Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. In addition Jonathan Harvey’s new work Weltethos will be premièred this season. I’m hoping against hope that a Vaughan Williams cycle under the baton of Sir Simon is not too far away. Now that would be something.
Without doubt, this release will be a strong contender for my Recordings of the Year.

-- Michael Cookson, MusicWeb International 
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Piano and Strings no 1 in G minor, Op. 25 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1855-1861; Germany 
Notes: Arranger: Arnold Schoenberg. 
Incidental Music to a Motion Picture Scene, Op. 34 by Arnold Schoenberg
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1929-1930; Berlin, Germany 
Chamber Symphony no 1 in E major, Op. 9 by Arnold Schoenberg
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1906; Vienna, Austria 

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