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Schoenberg: Verklarte Nacht, Chamber Symphony [CD+DVD]

Release Date: 09/29/2009 
Label:  Sono Luminus   Catalog #: 90909   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Arnold Schoenberg
Conductor:  Kenneth Slowik
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Smithsonian Chamber Players

Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHOENBERG Verklärte Nacht . Chamber Symphony No. 1 & Kenneth Slowik, cond; Smithsonian C Players DORIAN 90909 (51:36)

& DVD: Kenneth Slowik leads discussions with Anner Bylsma, René Clemencic, Richard Hoffmann, Reinbert de Leeuw, Christian Meyer; performances of both works (67:16)

This set contains no printed notes. The handsome tri-fold Read more digipack holds the two discs; its panels display the poem by Richard Dehmel upon which Schoenberg based his sextet, the timings of the individual movements, and production information (including a list of the performers). Information about the works and the performances can be gleaned from the documentary section of the bonus DVD.

Verklärte Nacht is one of those love-hate works, and I don’t imagine that this performance will change anyone’s mind. I found the performance to be convincingly dramatic, and watching the musicians on the DVD added to my sense that they were totally committed to the work. I prefer the sextet version to either of Schoenberg’s string orchestra arrangements, finding that the intensity of the music is more readily communicated through the original scoring. The performance of the Chamber Symphony pulses with impetuous energy; Schoenberg’s genius at concentrating the essence of late Romanticism into this 22-minute masterpiece is faithfully interpreted by the musicians assembled under the aegis of the Smithsonian.

Conductor Slowik serves as host on the DVD for the background programs about Schoenberg and the two works (there are also bonus programs about the Schoenberg Center and the Smithsonian). These introductory programs, in the form of commentaries, serve as program notes, providing insightful information about each piece. One example: Richard Hoffmann, a former student of Schoenberg’s, reads (in English) the composer’s explication of Verklärte Nacht written for the Hollywood Quartet recording, matching the text to the music. Slowik provides a similarly detailed analysis of the Chamber Symphony. These accompanying programs possess crude production values and their unusually poor sound can make for tedious listening. Luckily, the filmed performances are not plagued by similar compromises. Verklärte Nacht was filmed with a hazy quality, complementing the Romantic cast of the music, while the performance of the Chamber Symphony is brightly lit, in keeping with the more intensely modernist qualities of that score.

On the CD, the sound provided for Verklärte Nacht is dark and heavy, closely miked and claustrophobic—which may strike some listeners as appropriate for that work; for the Chamber Symphony, the intensity of the performance is compromised by sound that is strident and airless, despite the more spacious environs of Coolidge Auditorium. On the DVD, the sound is much improved: in 5.1 surround sound, even without a surround system, the acoustic is balanced and much easier on the ear. Incidentally, tracks are provided for each section of each work on the CD; unfortunately, the timings as listed on the package are reversed, those for the Symphony listed for Verklärte Nacht, and vice-versa.

Competitive versions of the original sextet version of Verklärte Nacht aren’t as plentiful as they once were. Of the surviving CDs, the prestige performance is on Sony with the Juilliard String Quartet assisted by Yo-Yo Ma and Walter Trampler (described as a “gutsy, emotional performance” by Fanfare ’s resident Schoenberg expert James H. North in 21:6); historic pride of place must go to the composer-endorsed Hollywood Quartet recording, available on Testament. An augmented Artemis String Quartet performs the work on a Virgin disc, endorsed by North in 30: 1; that performance is now available on a two-disc budget set of Schoenberg orchestral works on EMI. On the same EMI set, Simon Rattle leads the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in a dynamic performance of the Chamber Symphony No. 1. Rattle adds a modicum of restraint, producing a performance that brings just as much intensity to bear but within a context that is cooler and more expressionistic. On balance, I prefer the performances on the EMI set to those on this new Dorian CD. When one factors in the DVD, however, this set could serve as an exemplary introduction to this early phase of Schoenberg’s career, and on that basis I heartily recommend it.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
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Works on This Recording

Verklärte Nacht for String Orchestra, Op. 4 by Arnold Schoenberg
Conductor:  Kenneth Slowik
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Smithsonian Chamber Players
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1899/1943; Vienna, Austria 
Chamber Symphony no 1 in E major, Op. 9 by Arnold Schoenberg
Conductor:  Kenneth Slowik
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Smithsonian Chamber Players
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1906; Vienna, Austria 

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