Arnold Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) was born into a lower-middle-class Jewish family in Vienna while the city was still recovering from anti-Semitic agitation after the financial panic of 1873. When he was eight, he began studying violin and composing, but his only formal teacher was the composer Alexander Zemlinsky, whose sister Schoenberg later married. Through Zemlinsky's influence, his 1897 String Quartet in D major was accepted for performance, but the string sextet Verklärte Nacht of 1899 was turned down, and his early songs (opp.1–3) unleashed protests at their first performance in 1900.

After that, in Schoenberg's own words, scandal never left him as he strove to expand music's expressive potential by increasingly pressing the bounds of late-Romantic harmony—in such works as the symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande (1903) and the monumental cantata Gurrelieder (1900–11)—and then finally bursting those bounds in, for example, the freely "atonal" (music not in any key) song cycle Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (1908–09), Five Orchestral Pieces (1909), and the song cycle Pierrot lunaire (1912). The logical extension of this development for him—and for Alban Berg and Anton Webern, his disciples in the so-called Second Viennese School—was to adopt, beginning with the set of five piano pieces, op. 23 (1920–23), what he termed "a method of composing with twelve tones that are related only to one another" (serial or twelve-tone technique).
Little is known about Schoenberg's religious upbringing or childhood Jewish experiences. What might seem to be major milestones in his life—his conversion to Protestant Christianity in 1898 and, especially, his return to Judaism—are in fact only events in a continual internal struggle and spiritual quest. His conversion to Christianity, however, was not (as the distinguished music scholar Alexander Ringer observes in his well-known study, Arnold Schoenberg: The Composer As Jew) "under secularizing or assimilationist influences, but rather because, virtually untutored in Jewish values, he looked for other vessels to quench his spiritual thirst." By 1923 he was already committed to Jewish national concerns, and his drama Der Biblische Weg (The Way to the Bible; 1923–27) advocated a temporary national home for the Jewish people prior to eventual permanent settlement in Palestine.

Schoenberg formally converted back to Judaism in 1933, but he considered it the culmination of maturation, spiritual development, and fulfillment of personal destiny, and he claimed that he had always considered himself a Jew. The dominant theme throughout his life derives from a dualistic outlook on all phenomena as interactions or relationships between the concrete and the abstract, usually expressed as an irresolvable conflict. He seems to have sought resolution of that conflict—between an amorphous "God awareness" and a hunger for structure—in formal religion.
After the National Socialists came to power, in 1933, Schoenberg was summarily dismissed from his post at the Prussian Academy of Arts, where he had been teaching since 1926. He was denounced as a Jew and a leading exponent of "degenerate" art. A fervent Zionist, he drafted a bold "Four-Point Program for Jewry," propounding that "a united Jewish party must be created…. Ways must be prepared to obtain a place to erect an independent Jewish state." In 1934 he emigrated to the United States and settled eventually in Los Angeles, where he taught for a year at the University of Southern California and from 1936 at U.C.L.A. He became an American citizen in 1941.

During the last two decades of Schoenberg's life, Jewish subjects became increasingly important to him. Between 1930 and 1932 he worked at his opera Moses und Aron, which occupies a central position in his oeuvre. In 1938, the year in which the Kristallnacht pogroms signaled the end of Central European Jewry, he composed an English setting of the kol nidrei recitation; and in 1947 he wrote A Survivor from Warsaw, which Ringer calls the "ultimate artistic expression of both Schoenberg's lifelong Jewish trauma and his abiding faith." The 1950 choral setting of Psalm 130 in the original Hebrew, his contribution to an Anthology of Jewish Music, was dedicated to the State of Israel. But Schoenberg was never able to complete any of his large-scale religious works, including Moses und Aron and an oratorio Die Jakobsleiter (1917–22). Each breaks off with the protagonist left unable to find fulfillment through prayer.

In April 1951, a matter of weeks before his death, Schoenberg was made honorary president of the Israel Academy of Music in Jerusalem. In his letter of acceptance he gave voice for the last time to the ideals that marked his life as composer and Jew: "Those who issue from such an institution must be truly priests of art.... For just as God chose Israel to be the people whose task it is to maintain the pure, true, Mosaic monotheism despite all persecution...so too it is the task of Israeli musicians to set the world an example...."


ARNOLD SCHOENBERGA cappella mixed choruses--1929 & 1948 (Op. 49) folksong settings; String Quartet No. 2; Suite in G for String OrchestraJennifer Welch-Babidge (soprano)
Fred Sherry String Quartet
20th Century Classics Ensemble
Robert CraftNaxos10/10

http://www.classicstoday.com/review.asp?ReviewNum=9607


Arnold Schoenberg's a cappella folksong settings are among his least-appreciated--and most easily listenable--works, excellent examples of his pre-12-tone harmonic style, with masterfully crafted polyphonic textures. For one thing, they're rarely heard, and although not especially a breeze to sing, they're effectively and soundly written--Schein uns, du liebe Sonne being the standout among the six works. The Op. 10 string quartet performed here is its original 1908 version rather than the one for string orchestra that the composer produced in 1929. It's craggy and difficult--but also offers a multitude of lyrical and beautiful moments that the Fred Sherry String Quartet fully exploits. Soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge adds poignancy, sensitivity, and knowing style to the solos in the final two movements, using her thoughtful inflection to capture the music's colorful, moody impressionistic elements.

The 1934 Suite in G for String Orchestra is another gem--solidly tonal yet occasionally stretching the boundaries of traditional harmony, rich in melodic ideas and exciting rhythmic touches. Its five movements demand the highest level of technique from the players, even though it originally was written for developing student musicians. Again, this outstanding piece is rarely played or recorded, but this first-rate performance by Robert Craft's Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble is all you will need. The same goes for the rest of the program--and Naxos' engineering, from London's Abbey Road studios (choral works) and New York's premiere chamber-music recording venue, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, matches the disc's fine musical values. Informative notes by Craft, along with texts and translations for the vocal works, crown this much-needed addition to the Schoenberg catalog. [1/5/2006]

--David Vernier



ARNOLD SCHOENBERGFive Pieces for Orchestra; Cello Concerto (after Monn); Piano Quartet in G minor (after Brahms)Fred Sherry (cello)
Philharmonia Orchestra
London Symphony Orchestra
Robert Craft
Naxos9/9

http://www.classicstoday.com/review.asp?ReviewNum=10675

This is Schoenberg for people who hate Schoenberg. The Five Pieces for Orchestra, far from sounding radical or appallingly dissonant as they must have in 1909, now impress us as impressionistic, atmospheric, and evocative. The loony Cello Concerto after Monn and the Brahms Piano Quartet are both modern classics in the art of transcription, not to mention one composer's very strongly personalized view of his predecessors.
Robert Craft's performances are uniformly impressive, particularly in the Cello Concerto. Its appallingly difficult solo part is handled with consummate intelligence and virtuosity by Fred Sherry, and the accompaniment hardly could be clearer or cleaner in texture. The Brahms is very good too, surpassed only by Craft himself in his earlier Sony recording with the Chicago Symphony. This newcomer, however, does enjoy much better sonics, and at the Naxos price makes an excellent bargain
.
--David Hurwitz

ARNOLD SCHOENBERGConcerto for String Quartet & Orchestra in B-flat, after Handel's Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 7 (trans. Schoenberg); Suite for Piano Op. 25; Lied der Waldtaube from Gurre-Lieder (1923 chamber ensemble Version); The Book of the Hanging Gardens Op. 15; 15 Poems from Stefan George's Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten; A Conversation with Arnold SchoenbergChristopher Oldfather (piano); Jennifer Lane (mezzo-soprano)
The Fred Sherry String Quartet
20th Century Classics Ensemble (New York)
Robert CraftNaxos9/9

http://www.classicstoday.com/review.asp?ReviewNum=8743

Here is a fine mixed assortment of music by Arnold Schoenberg. All of the performances are high quality, and two of them are now my reference recordings. Even if this were a full-price disc, the expert performances, clean engineering, and wide sonic range (including particularly solid bass) would make it a top choice.
The performance of Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten is notable for lovely, accurate singing by Jennifer Lane and sensitive, fluent support by pianist Christopher Oldfather. Lane produces a more beautiful tone, with more consistency between registers, than the major rival performance by Jan DeGaetani and pianist Gilbert Kalish on Nonesuch. But DeGaetani exploits register differences to create a wider range of effect and knows when some vocal harshness is called for. Lane may excel in presenting the love music's lyricism, but DeGaetani makes the loss and anguish more keenly felt. Although my reference here remains DeGaetani/Kalish, Lane's rendition is still excellent, and I dare say that some listeners will prefer hers because of its sheer vocal beauty.

The Piano Suite Op. 25 occupies a pivotal spot in music history as Schoenberg's first completely 12-tone work. Again the top contender is a classic Nonesuch CD, this time played by Paul Jacobs, who projects more angst. Oldfather presents a clarified, even witty approach that makes this music sound less "difficult" than usual while demonstrating that Schoenberg used neo-classical form and texture to support his radical melodic/harmonic technique. Since the Nonesuch disc's sound is a little fuzzy by today's standards, it's an easy nod for the new disc.
Lied der Waldtaube is a song from Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder. Schoenberg stripped the original lush full-orchestral accompaniment down to a 15-piece ensemble to create the arrangement recorded here. Jennifer Lane returns as soloist, again displaying her creamy mezzo-soprano in particularly sensitive singing. This is definitely worth hearing--and acquiring as an alternative. In the end though, fans of this music will want the late-Romantic original orchestration for its stronger emotional punch.

Schoenberg, who was not a particular fan of Handel, felt free to mess around with the Baroque master's Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 7. Often altering Handel's harmonization, and with downright loopy "wrong" notes scattered around the score, this strange piece is Schoenberg's funniest composition. Robert Craft, a friend of Schoenberg's in his later days and a pioneer in conducting the composer's music in America, leads the Fred Sherry String Quartet (formed for the occasion of this recording) and the Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble in a recording of this piece that's unprecedented in clarity and wit, with full-bodied sound to match. The disc concludes with a rather charming 1949 interview of Schoenberg by American composer Halsey Stevens.

--Joseph Stevenson

ARNOLD SCHOENBERGPhantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment Op. 47; Piece for Violin & Piano in D minor; Sonata after the Wind Quintet Op. 26 (arranged for violin & piano by Felix Greissle); Fragment for Violin & PianoUlf Wallin (violin); Roland Pöntinen (piano)BIS10/10

http://www.classicstoday.com/review.asp?ReviewNum=9202

SHOENBERGCello Concerto; Piano Concerto; Chamber Symphony No. 2; Die Glückliche HandFred Sherry (cello); Christopher Oldfather (piano); Mark Beesley (bass)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Robert CraftKoch International Classics9/9

http://www.classicstoday.com/review.asp?ReviewNum=4535

Moses und Aron.

David Pittman-Jennings Moses ; Chris Merritt Aron ; László Polgár Priest ; Gabriele Fontana Young Girl ; Yvonne Naef Invalid Woman ; John Graham-Hall Young Man; Naked Youth ; Siegfried Lorenz Another Man ; Michael Devlin Ephramite ; Gabriele Fontana Naked Woman I ; José Kalthof Naked Woman II ; Diana Rehbock Naked Woman III ; Caren van Oijen Naked Woman IV ; Jan Pollak First Elder ; Jef van Wersch Second Elder ; Franziska Hirzel Solo voice in the orchestra I ; Helena Rasker Solo voice in the orchestra II ; Silka Marchfeld Solo voice in the orchestra III ; Duncan Mackenzie Solo voice in the orchestra IV ; Thomas Mehnert Solo voice in the orchestra V ; Markus Marquardt Solo voice in the orchestra VI ; Iris Giel sop Soprano Voice ; Per-Erik Lindskog ten Youth ; Henk de Vries bar A Man ; Nico Pouw bass Third Elder
(Royal) Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam; Netherlands Opera Chorus/Pierre Boulez
Deutsche Grammophon CD      
 

Reviewed: Gramophone 10/1996, Michael Oliver
 

Moses und Aron has had a fair number of productions since its posthumous premiere 40 years ago, but it has never become a repertory opera. Partly, of course, because of its extreme demands, and it is no bad thing that it remains a piece that no company can take on lightly. But it is also respected rather than loved, with the reputation of being a tough assignment for all concerned. One of the essays in the booklet accompanying this new recording calls it a didactic opera. Precisely; or to phrase it more off-puttingly still, an operatic sermon.

Pierre Boulez, however, is a conductor in whom didacticism is close to a passion, and he is obviously passionate about this opera (this is his second recording of the piece). We take it for granted that in any work to which he feels close every detail will be both accurate and audible. But for Schoenberg Moses und Aron was a warning as well as a homily, and as much a confession of faith as either (a double confession: in the religion to which he had returned and in the power of his compositional method to encompass epic drama). Boulez, often himself a Moses preaching against anti-modern backsliding, is at one with Schoenberg here. Some such reason, surely, has led to this being not only a performance of immaculate clarity, but of intense and eloquent beauty and powerful drama too.

The recording was made during a run of stage performances, but in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, not in the theatre. In the beautiful acoustic of their own hall, the orchestra play with ample richness as well as precision, and the at times complex textures benefit enormously from a perceptible space around them. The choral singing matches the orchestral playing in quality: beautiful in tone, eloquently urgent, vividly precise in the difficult spoken passages. The soloists are all admirable, with no weak links. Merritt in particular seems to have all that the hugely taxing role of Aron demands: a fine control of long line, intelligently expressive use of words, where necessary the dangerous demagogue’s glamour. Pittman-Jennings is a properly prophetic Moses, grand of voice; among the others Fontana, Hall and Polgar stand out for pungent character as well as vocal quality. But the set is Boulez’s achievement above all: he is as good at dramatic excitement (the transformations of Moses’s staff) as at soberly or poignantly expressive melody (the memorably beautiful closing scene), and the long, orgiastic worship of the Golden Calf has all that one hopes for from it: power, menace, hysteria, the grotesque, but also a queerly impressive sensuous lyricism which is disturbingly alluring. This, I am convinced, is one of Boulez’s finest achievements, a compelling argument for Moses und Aron as an anything but coldly didactic opera.' 

Michael Oliver



Pelleas und Melisande,Op. 5. Verklärte Nacht, 'Transfigured Night',Op. 4.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Yoel Levi
Telarc CD      CD80372 (78 minutes : DDD)
 
Reviewed: Gramophone 3/1995, Arnold Whittall
 

My immediate impression was positive. Verklarte Nacht begins with exemplary quietness, the tempo appropriately measured. But a lack of inner tension soon becomes apparent, the pace increasingly leaden. These lovers seem to be negotiating a ploughed field rather than a moonlit forest, and the total duration—more than 35 minutes, compared to the more usual 28 or 29—tells its own story.

The disc is labelled ''The Romantic Schoenberg'', and Yoel Levi was evidently determined at all costs to shun the kind of intensity that might suggest anticipations of Schoenberg's more abrasive later style. The orchestra play well and many details of phrasing and dynamics are responsively handled, but the textures are forced into an over-blended homogeneity and the result lacks drama. This is an effusive yet ultimately rather cautious romanticism, and for performances which match warmth with urgency I much prefer Karajan's imposing full-scale reading, or the Orpheus CO's more intimate and subtle interpretation.
Levi's view of Schoenberg's romanticism is a little more persuasive in the expansive, doom-laden pages of Pelleas und Melisande, though caution again emerges in a fairly tame scherzo section, and the overall effect is to make the score seem more episodic than it need be, weighing down the textures, rather than highlighting the contrapuntal interdependence of the various strands. Boulez—with help from the Erato technicians—has shown how a balance can be struck in this complex score between clarity and integration: Karajan, too (on a three-disc set), offers a masterly demonstration of how richness of sound need not bring over-emphatic expression in its train.' 

Arnold Whittall
 

Klavierstück,Op. 33a - Klavierstück,Op. 33b - 3 Klavierstücke,Op. 11 - 6 Klavierstücke,Op. 19 - 5 Klavierstücke,Op. 23 - Suite,Op. 25
Maurizio Pollini pf
Deutsche Grammophon    

Reviewed: Gramophone 6/1988
 

Pollini has called these probably the most important piano pieces of the twentieth century. The proposition is debatable; not debatable is the quality of Pollini's interpretations. Here and there one could demur over details, and the first piece of Op. 11, which begins the record has always seemed to me too static; but overall there is a combination of intellectual and pianistic mastery which is quite extraordinary. The opportunity to acquire it in digitally remastered sound and at mid price should not be missed.
If you are coming new to this music don't expect to be wooed or seduced—Schoenberg was not an ar complished pianist, and he seems to have used the instrument more for bold ventures into the unknown than for consolidation or relaxation. Take the Shock of the New full in the face and go straight for Op. 11 No. 3 or the Gigue from Op. 25; for lyrical respite try Op. 33a. Wherever you turn you can be sure that Pollini's musical insight and virtuosity, not to mention DG's ideally focused recording, present the music in just about the best possible light.'



Variations for Orchestra,Op. 31 - Verklärte Nacht, 'Transfigured Night',Op. 4
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan
Deutsche Grammophon     

Reviewed: Gramophone 3/1986, Michael Oliver
 

When I last listened to these two performances of Verklarte Nacht on LP I marginally preferred Karajan's intensity and opulence to Ashkenazy's more sinewy lyricism. Listening to them again on CD I am not so sure. Both of them are brighter-toned in the new medium, and in both cases the violins give off quite a harsh glare in the higher-lying passages. The effect is more pronounced in Ashkenazy's account for Decca, but his being a recent, digital recording there are compensating advantages: clarity of part-writing, crisply vigorous attack, a clearly perceptible grain to the texture—at one or two points one feels that one could almost count the cellos. The effect is of a good television picture with the brightness control turned up too far, and to a degree it can be remedied.

Karajan's DG reading is nearly ten years older, and the effect of transfer to CD has been to increase the brightness of an already very rich sound but to add rather little in the way of immediacy: the sound is huge but curiously ill-defined: are there 40 violins or 400 in Karajan's orchestra, or just one vast super-violin? It is a superb performance, approaching closer than any other a sense of chromatic expressiveness so pulpily rich that mould has already begun to form, but with such massively opaque sound the effect is as much repulsive as impressive. Karajan's famous account of the Op. 31 Variations is also rather less immediate than one expects on CD: the violins are again very shrill, and the dynamics are terraced rather than graded. I fancy, too, that the very carefully judged internal balances in this performance are more naturally in focus on LP. In fact all the performances here considered make more comfortable listening in the older medium.'  Michael Oliver


Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, 'Accomp,Op. 34. Chamber Symphony No 1,Op. 9. Die Jakobsleiter.
Mady Mesplé sop Ortrun Wenkel cont Anthony Rolfe Johnson , Ian Partridge , Kenneth Bowen tens John Shirley-Quirk bar Siegmund Nimsgern bbar Paul Hudson bass
BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Ensemble InterContemporain, Paris/Pierre Boulez
Sony Classical CD     

5 Orchestral Pieces,Op. 16. Ode to Napoleon,Op. 41. Serenade,Op. 24.
David Wilson-Johnson , John Shirley-Quirk bars
Ensemble InterContemporain, Paris/Pierre Boulez
Sony Classical CD     
 

Variations for Orchestra,Op. 31. Verklärte Nacht, 'Transfigured Night',Op. 4. Die glückliche Hand,Op. 18.
Siegmund Nimsgern bbar
BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
Sony Classical CD     

3 Pieces. Suite,Op. 29. Verklärte Nacht,Op. 4.
Ensemble InterContemporain, Paris/Pierre Boulez
Sony Classical CD     
 

Lied der Waldtaube. Pierrot lunaire,Op. 21. Erwartung,Op. 17.
Janis Martin sop The Woman
Jessye Norman sop Yvonne Minton mez Michel Debost fl Antony Pay cl Pinchas Zukerman vn Lynn Harrell vc Daniel Barenboim pf
BBC Symphony Orchestra; Ensemble InterContemporain, Paris/Pierre Boulez
Sony Classical CD    

Chamber Symphony No 2,Op. 38. Moses und Aron.
Günter Reich Moses ; Richard Cassilly Aron ; Richard Angas Priest ; Felicity Palmer Young Girl; Naked Woman II ; Gillian Knight Invalid Woman ; John Winfield Young Man; Youth ; Roland Hermann Ephramite ; John Noble An Elder ; Jane Manning Naked Man I; Solo voice in the orchestra I ; Gillian Knight Naked Woman III; Solo voice in the orchestra III ; Helen Watts Naked Woman IV; Solo voice in the orchestra IV ; Philip Langridge Solo voice in the orchestra V ; Michael Rippon Solo voice in the orchestra V ; Dennis Wicks Solo voice in the orchestra VI
BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Orpheus Boys' Choir; Ensemble InterContemporain, Paris/Pierre Boulez
Sony Classical CD      

Gurrelieder. 4 Lieder,Op. 22.
Marita Napier sop Yvonne Minton mez Jess Thomas , Kenneth Bowen tens Siegmund Nimsgern bbar
BBC Choral Society; BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Goldsmith's Choral Union; London Philharmonic Choir/Pierre Boulez
Sony Classical CD      
Reviewed: Gramophone 12/1993, Arnold Whittall
 

Sony Classical provided a 'trailer' for this collection three years ago, when they issued—also at medium price—a two-disc set of Schoenberg's smaller choral works recorded by Pierre Boulez and (mainly) BBC forces between 1976 and 1986 (8/90). Since then Boulez has begun a new Schoenberg cycle for Erato with fine accounts of Pelleas und Melisande and the Variations, Op. 31 (4/93), though it remains to be seen if this will extend to the more substantial compositions on the Sony Classical discs—Gurrelieder, Die Jakobsleiter and Moses und Aron.
From the sonic point of view these digital remasterings of CBS's analogue originals have been well worthwhile. Comparison confirms that the sound has more body and stronger presence than on the original LPs, even if the shifting focus on specific details can still seem rather artificial by today's standards. From the standpoint of interpretation, it has to be admitted that Boulez's accounts are often not first choice when alternative—usually more recent—recordings exist. So, if you have invested in such full-price issues as the CBSO/Rattle disc, including the Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16 (EMI, 11/89), the Orpheus CO's Verklarte Nacht and two chamber symphonies, Chailly's Gurrelieder (Decca, 3/91) or the Norman/Levine Erwartung (Philips, 9/93), you need not feel hard done by. Nevertheless, this Sony collection has considerable value, and for two principal reasons: it restores rarely heard major works to the catalogue, and provides an absorbing overview of a great musical modernist's encounter with his most significant compositional precursor.

The rarely heard works include the marvellously intense Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, the luminous Orchestral Songs, Op. 22, the extraordinary 22-minute opera Die gluckliche Hand, and the unfinished oratorio Die Jakobsleiter, which is one of Schoenberg's most revealing compositions, both technically and theologically. The opera Moses und Aron is no less crucial to Schoenberg's ethos, and its Second Act is surely the ultimate Schoenbergian synthesis of technical virtuosity and expressive intensity. Boulez's performance may yield something to Solti's in sustained theatrical impact, and the recording places the principal soloists in an artificial acoustic, recessed and resonant. For all that, it is a gripping and moving interpretation, with Gunther Reich a compelling Moses and Richard Cassilly providing the Heldentenorial timbre which Aron needs if his dangerous plausibility is to be dramatically credible.

One thing this collection confirms with great clarity is that, as a Schoenberg interpreter, Boulez was never the consistently brusque anti-romantic of critical legend. As early as the often admirable Gurrelieder performance we find an expansiveness of phrase, not always convincingly applied but undeniably characterful. Similarly, the orchestral version of Verklarte Nacht exploits the music's contrasts to a well-nigh wilful degree, and that is why, today, the more polished, fluent but no less deeply-felt Orpheus CO reading is a safer bet for repeated listening.
The Sony collection combines the (mainly earlier) London recordings with those made in Paris. The earliest of these, a Pierrot lunaire with a consistently sung vocal line, remains a beautiful misrepresentation of that perennially strange work. In the chamber symphonies, the Serenade, the Suite, Op. 29 and the Ode to Napoleon, the sustained technical excellence of the Ensemble Intercon-temporain provides a useful reminder of how important their contribution to the contemporary music scene has been over recent years: and their Verklarte Nacht, though not ideal, is one of the better chamber versions currently available.
The least successful of these performances—for example, that of Erwartung—are those in which Boulez seems less than completely caught up in the occasion: a consequence, perhaps, of his extraordinarily hectic conducting schedule in the 1970s and early 1980s. Such weaknesses are exceptional, however, and the overriding impression is of a shining musical and critical intelligence bringing some of the twentieth century's most challenging, memorable and neglected music to convincing life.
 
Arnold Whittall



ARNOLD SCHÖNBERGString Quartets No. 2 Op. 10; No. 4 Op. 37Christiane Oelze (soprano)
Leipziger StreichquartettMDG10/8

Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, 'Accomp,Op. 34. Chamber Symphony No 2,Op. 38. Verklärte Nacht, 'Transfigured Night',Op. 4.
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Heinz Holliger
Teldec CD      9031-77314-2 (63 minutes : DDD)
 

Reviewed: Gramophone 10/1994, Arnold Whittall
 

The Schoenberg enthusiast, that rare but hardy phenomenon, will note with gratitude that the apparently insatiable desire for recordings of Verklarte Nacht, in the version for string orchestra, does not invariably lead the record companies to couple that work with music by different composers. What can be less gratifying is the demonstration that performers who are perfectly at home with Verklarte Nacht's opulent late romanticism are much less at ease with Schoenberg's leaner, tougher later music.
This should not be the case with Heinz Holliger: as an important avant-garde composer he might even be expected to be happier with Schoenberg the atonal radical than Schoenberg the late romantic. In the event, however, the distinction seems to count for very little. All three pieces on this new Teldec disc are played in a rather similar way, with plenty of atmosphere, emotional extremes intensified, and a rather weighty—even, at times, laboured—approach to phrasing and line.

In Verklarte Nacht and the Second Chamber Symphony feelings certainly run deep, but there is also a rather studied quality in places. By contrast, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra achieve a more intimate expressiveness, and also—for example, at the start of the symphony's second movement—a livelier, lighter touch. This recording remains my first choice for both works, despite the strong challenges mounted in Verklarte Nacht by Karajan's BPO and the Sinfonia Varsovia.

It was enterprising of Holliger to include Schoenberg's 12-note tone-poem, Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, but Boulez conveys rather more of the piece's skilfully crafted unity. Another problem with this new disc is that the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is less well recorded than, in particular, the Orpheus CO on DG. As with their earlier Schoenberg/Berg disc (2/91) the sound seems over-fortified: too bright, too forward. It all adds to the impression of effort outweighing spontaneity.'  Arnold Whittall

 
Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, 'Accomp,Op. 34. Chamber Symphony No 1,Op. 9. Die Jakobsleiter.
Mady Mesplé sop Ortrun Wenkel cont Anthony Rolfe Johnson , Ian Partridge , Kenneth Bowen tens John Shirley-Quirk bar Siegmund Nimsgern bbar Paul Hudson bass
BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Ensemble InterContemporain, Paris/Pierre Boulez
Sony Classical CD     
 

5 Orchestral Pieces,Op. 16. Ode to Napoleon,Op. 41. Serenade,Op. 24.
David Wilson-Johnson , John Shirley-Quirk bars
Ensemble InterContemporain, Paris/Pierre Boulez
Sony Classical CD     
 

Variations for Orchestra,Op. 31. Verklärte Nacht, 'Transfigured Night',Op. 4. Die glückliche Hand,Op. 18.
Siegmund Nimsgern bbar
BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
Sony Classical CD     

3 Pieces. Suite,Op. 29. Verklärte Nacht,Op. 4.
Ensemble InterContemporain, Paris/Pierre Boulez
Sony Classical CD     

Lied der Waldtaube. Pierrot lunaire,Op. 21. Erwartung,Op. 17.
Janis Martin sop The Woman
Jessye Norman sop Yvonne Minton mez Michel Debost fl Antony Pay cl Pinchas Zukerman vn Lynn Harrell vc Daniel Barenboim pf
BBC Symphony Orchestra; Ensemble InterContemporain, Paris/Pierre Boulez
Sony Classical CD     
 

Chamber Symphony No 2,Op. 38. Moses und Aron.
Günter Reich Moses ; Richard Cassilly Aron ; Richard Angas Priest ; Felicity Palmer Young Girl; Naked Woman II ; Gillian Knight Invalid Woman ; John Winfield Young Man; Youth ; Roland Hermann Ephramite ; John Noble An Elder ; Jane Manning Naked Man I; Solo voice in the orchestra I ; Gillian Knight Naked Woman III; Solo voice in the orchestra III ; Helen Watts Naked Woman IV; Solo voice in the orchestra IV ; Philip Langridge Solo voice in the orchestra V ; Michael Rippon Solo voice in the orchestra V ; Dennis Wicks Solo voice in the orchestra VI
BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Orpheus Boys' Choir; Ensemble InterContemporain, Paris/Pierre Boulez
Sony Classical CD      

Gurrelieder. 4 Lieder,Op. 22.
Marita Napier sop Yvonne Minton mez Jess Thomas , Kenneth Bowen tens Siegmund Nimsgern bbar
BBC Choral Society; BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Goldsmith's Choral Union; London Philharmonic Choir/Pierre Boulez
Sony Classical CD        

Reviewed: Gramophone 12/1993, Arnold Whittall
 

Sony Classical provided a 'trailer' for this collection three years ago, when they issued—also at medium price—a two-disc set of Schoenberg's smaller choral works recorded by Pierre Boulez and (mainly) BBC forces between 1976 and 1986 (8/90). Since then Boulez has begun a new Schoenberg cycle for Erato with fine accounts of Pelleas und Melisande and the Variations, Op. 31 (4/93), though it remains to be seen if this will extend to the more substantial compositions on the Sony Classical discs—Gurrelieder, Die Jakobsleiter and Moses und Aron.
From the sonic point of view these digital remasterings of CBS's analogue originals have been well worthwhile. Comparison confirms that the sound has more body and stronger presence than on the original LPs, even if the shifting focus on specific details can still seem rather artificial by today's standards. From the standpoint of interpretation, it has to be admitted that Boulez's accounts are often not first choice when alternative—usually more recent—recordings exist. So, if you have invested in such full-price issues as the CBSO/Rattle disc, including the Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16 (EMI, 11/89), the Orpheus CO's Verklarte Nacht and two chamber symphonies, Chailly's Gurrelieder (Decca, 3/91) or the Norman/Levine Erwartung (Philips, 9/93), you need not feel hard done by. Nevertheless, this Sony collection has considerable value, and for two principal reasons: it restores rarely heard major works to the catalogue, and provides an absorbing overview of a great musical modernist's encounter with his most significant compositional precursor.

The rarely heard works include the marvellously intense Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, the luminous Orchestral Songs, Op. 22, the extraordinary 22-minute opera Die gluckliche Hand, and the unfinished oratorio Die Jakobsleiter, which is one of Schoenberg's most revealing compositions, both technically and theologically. The opera Moses und Aron is no less crucial to Schoenberg's ethos, and its Second Act is surely the ultimate Schoenbergian synthesis of technical virtuosity and expressive intensity. Boulez's performance may yield something to Solti's in sustained theatrical impact, and the recording places the principal soloists in an artificial acoustic, recessed and resonant. For all that, it is a gripping and moving interpretation, with Gunther Reich a compelling Moses and Richard Cassilly providing the Heldentenorial timbre which Aron needs if his dangerous plausibility is to be dramatically credible.

One thing this collection confirms with great clarity is that, as a Schoenberg interpreter, Boulez was never the consistently brusque anti-romantic of critical legend. As early as the often admirable Gurrelieder performance we find an expansiveness of phrase, not always convincingly applied but undeniably characterful. Similarly, the orchestral version of Verklarte Nacht exploits the music's contrasts to a well-nigh wilful degree, and that is why, today, the more polished, fluent but no less deeply-felt Orpheus CO reading is a safer bet for repeated listening.
The Sony collection combines the (mainly earlier) London recordings with those made in Paris. The earliest of these, a Pierrot lunaire with a consistently sung vocal line, remains a beautiful misrepresentation of that perennially strange work. In the chamber symphonies, the Serenade, the Suite, Op. 29 and the Ode to Napoleon, the sustained technical excellence of the Ensemble Intercon-temporain provides a useful reminder of how important their contribution to the contemporary music scene has been over recent years: and their Verklarte Nacht, though not ideal, is one of the better chamber versions currently available.
The least successful of these performances—for example, that of Erwartung—are those in which Boulez seems less than completely caught up in the occasion: a consequence, perhaps, of his extraordinarily hectic conducting schedule in the 1970s and early 1980s. Such weaknesses are exceptional, however, and the overriding impression is of a shining musical and critical intelligence bringing some of the twentieth century's most challenging, memorable and neglected music to convincing life.

Arnold Whittall


Chamber Symphony No 1,Op. 9 - Chamber Symphony No 2,Op. 38 - Verklärte Nacht, 'Transfigured Night',Op. 4
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon      429 233-2GH (69 minutes : DDD)
 

Reviewed: Gramophone 7/1990, Arnold Whittall
 

''That would be quite a disc!'' said Orpheus Chamber Orchestra member Julian Fifer when announcing the ensemble's plan for a recording of these three works. How right he was! Not only is this the first time that this combination of compositions has been issued on a single disc but, more to the point, it is a remarkable artistic achievement.

Reporting the belief that the Orpheus was probably the first ensemble to perform the Chamber Symphony No. 1 without conductor, Fifer claimed that ''it all sounds so much better when everyone listens to each other closely and there's no 'interpreter' to get in the way''. This performance strongly conveys the collective surge of adrenalin from 15 soloists, each of whom knows that a micro-second's lapse of concentration would mean disaster. But the Orpheus players demonstrate much more than nervously mechanical proficiency. They use their special conductorless alertness to mould performances that sound supremely spontaneous, and the clean, natural recording underlines the textural refinement as well as the remarkable variety of expression which they can achieve. Reinbert de Leeuw's Schonberg Ensemble account, for Schwann/Koch International, is no less virtuosic and sometimes even more vivid in detail, yet there is, relatively speaking, a mannered, posturing quality to the interpretation, and less rounded warmth to the sound.

It is in the second of the two movements of the Chamber Symphony No. 2 that the Orpheus players reveal their decisive superiority to Jeffrey Tate's in many ways excellent English Chamber Orchestra reading for EMI. Once or twice I found the EMI balance superior (the muted trumpet solo in the first movement) but the DG sound is, again, cleaner, and the playing more characterful, the exemplary attention to detail never hindering appreciation of the larger structure. The Orpheus performance sustains the tensions and relishes the pungencies of this quirky yet cogent music with an ideal blend of wit and pathos.
As for Verklarte Nacht, it is possible to feel that Schoenberg's early tone-poem should be played either by a solo string sextet or by the largest possible string orchestra. A small string orchestra runs the risk of being too weighty in intimate moments and too light-weight at climaxes. Yet this Orpheus account is triumphant proof that such a performance can work. Like the chamber symphonies, it is given a head's start by a recorded sound that hits precisely the right balance between clarity and spaciousness, and the playing itself has an eloquence and expressive freedom that encompasses with distinction the music's extremes of passion and repose. I found myself thinking—and this is meant as a compliment—that this is the kind of performance of Verklarte Nacht that Leonard Bernstein at his most inspired and least self-indulgent might conjure from a string orchestra. By comparison the English String Orchestra on Nimbus, though competently directed by William Boughton, seem generalized, and at times in too much of a hurry; often weighty, but with insufficient attention to expressive detail. When it comes to weight combined with finely-shaped expression, there is Herbert von Karajan's 'big-band' recording, also on DG, and very special of its kind. But the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is different, and I would be very surprised if this performance did not prove as hard to displace in its own terms as Karajan's.' 

Arnold Whittall



Composers Who Should Be Better Known