Notes and Editorial Reviews
Pelleas und Melisande,
Chamber Symphony No. 1,
Piano Quartet in g
Daniel Barenboim, cond;
John Barbirolli, cond;
New Philharmonia O;
Simon Rattle, cond;
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group;
EMI 71492 (2 CDs: 137:58)
This is listener-friendly Schoenberg: four safe, conservative pieces, with no hint of atonalism or the 12-tone system. That’s meant to be informative, not a put down, for this is wonderful stuff, most of it late-Romanticism at its best. So I’d like to write this review for those who know Schoenberg only by reputation and who may still be wary of his music. Here are his first three orchestral works—I’ve included opus numbers in the headnote to emphasize the point; his music first slipped from tonality during the op. 10 Second String Quartet, and the 12 tones arrived years later.
(“Transfigured Night”) is the composer’s most popular work, a half-hour symphonic poem for strings that tells the story of a man who comes to accept his lover’s pregnancy by another. Closely based on a poem by Richard Dehmel, the impassioned music goes through both serene and tortured passages, emerging radiant at the end. Barenboim’s 1967 recording may not be the subtlest of performances, but it is most effective at capturing the story’s emotional fire. The English Chamber Orchestra is misnamed, its large string complement as potent as any ensemble I have heard play this music.
Pelleas und Melisande
is another late-Romantic symphonic poem, a 42-minute single movement. It is scored for a huge orchestra (eight horns!), comparable to those used by Strauss and Mahler, but it is deeper and richer. Imagine, if you can, Rachmaninoff writing thoroughly Germanic orchestral music. Surges of emotion overlap like waves, carrying the listener along. One may analyze its form as a symphony of four connected movements, but just wallowing in the music does both listener and music greater justice. Among commercial recordings, this 1967 Barbirolli performance held primacy for years, being vastly superior to Karajan’s smooth, boring account. Recorded at London’s superb Kinsgway Hall, everything in the complex score can be heard. Those who love the piece will find Karl Böhm’s 1969 live performance in Andante’s three-CD set “Vienna Philharmonic: 20th Century Music, Volume 1” to be incomparable, as is its recorded sound. Yes, Karl Böhm, the great classicist!
The First Chamber Symphony was Schoenberg’s major neo-Classical work. In addition, it defined a totally new ensemble: an orchestra with but one instrument on each part. Officially titled
Kammersymfonie für 15 Solo-Instrumente
, it includes flute, oboe, English horn, clarinets in D and in A, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, two French horns, string quartet, and double bass. Is it chamber music, or is it symphonic music? Neither: it is a new category, one which was to influence the next century of music as much as his more dreaded inventions. But here, too, formal analysis and historical importance are less important than the music itself, which bubbles with high spirits for 22 minutes. Unfortunately, this 1993 recording does scant justice to the work; the performance seems to aim at making the ensemble sound like a full orchestra—much of it is just too loud—and a warm, reverberant ambience abets that feeling. What should be precise, crisp, and bright comes across as almost maudlin. There are lots of good recordings out there; let me recommend members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Chailly on Decca 473 278, a two-CD set which also includes the finest performance ever of
ne plus ultra
of the composer’s late-Romantic works.
Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’s G-Minor Piano Quartet is one of the great hyphenated works, right up there with the Mussorgsky-Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition
. As with the transition from a play to a motion picture, if the original is a particular favorite, you may not like the revision at first. Give it time; I love the Piano Quartet, yet adore the orchestrated version too. The scoring is rich and colorful, convincingly Brahmsian until the finale, where Schoenberg opts for a lot of percussion. This performance is too cautious, as if it were being sight read; probably it needed more rehearsal time. It loses its way briefly from 3:38 to 3:50 in the first movement and again at 0:14 to 0:19 in the finale; it’s not that wrong notes are played, but that the players have no feel for where to place accents, and balances are unclear. The second movement, Allegro non troppo, drifts along with no bounce or snap, and some of the Presto finale just crawls. The recording was made at The Maltings, Snape, on July 19, 1984, but there is no indication that it was a live performance. The acoustic is warm and lively. Robert Craft led the Chicago Symphony in a blazing, athletic performance in 1964, just released on CD as Sony 78746. A new Craft performance, with the Philharmonia on Naxos 8.557524, is more relaxed but is realized more cleanly than the Rattle. Another superb recording is played by the Vienna Philharmonic under Dohnányi, on Decca 452 050.
A listener just getting to know a piece should hear a good performance, one that reveals its best qualities. I am disappointed by the Rattle recordings, but the other two are fine, and the whole set costs only $11.99 on ArkivMusic.com. That’s three dollars per work, so I hope those who have steered clear of Schoenberg in the past will take this opportunity to give him a try.
FANFARE: James H. North
Works on This Recording
Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5 by Arnold Schoenberg
Sir John Barbirolli
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1902-1903; Vienna, Austria
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