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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Friede auf Erden op. 13 (1911) [9'54]; Farben op. 16 no. 3 (1909) [4'09]; Drei Volksliedsätze (1929) [9'24]; Friede auf Erden op. 13 (1907) [9'33]; Kammersymphonie für 15 solo-instrumente op.9 (1914) [20'26]; Verbundenheit op. 35 no. 6 (1930) [2'36]; Dreimal tausend Jahre op.50A (1949) [2'52]; De Profundis op. 59B (1950) [5.16]
Accentus Chamber Choir/Laurence Equilbey
Ensemble Intercontemporain/Jonathan Nott (Op. 9)
rec. August 2002, Paris (Accentus); March 2005, Paris (Op. 9) DDD
NAÏVE V5008 [64'07]


Accentus keeps breaking new ground for choral music. They bring the exacting standards of chamber music to what they sing. The choir becomes much more than massed sound, but a collaboration of voices, bringing music alive with exquisite textures and colours. Moreover, they shake up established repertoire by introducing new music and specialised transcriptions. Their work is exciting, and different.

Here they focus on Schoenberg as choral composer. Schoenberg could write extravaganzas where massed voices are part of the elaborate effect, such as in the Gurrelieder. The shorter pieces on this recording were chosen, however, as Vincent Manac'h's notes say, because they represent Schoenberg's search for a personal faith that might merge with the faith of a community. A single voice meshing with others to form a whole; what a good way to describe Accentus's own approach to performance.

Friede auf Erden expresses a faith which does not doubt that “Etwas wie Gerehtigkeit webt und wirkt in Mord und Grauen” (a semblance of justice is at work amid the murder and horror). Schoenberg wrote the original a capella version at a time of optimism. He was later to say he revised it for voices and orchestra because he had learned that peace was only possible by attention to harmony. “In other words, not without accompaniment”. More cogently, the first version was at the time considered unperformable because of its uncomfortable discords in the musical line. The version with orchestra thus mediates the balance and produces greater harmony. First we hear the 1911 version, then later the 1907 original. Perhaps choral singing a hundred years ago was different, for Accentus manage the piece with aplomb. The precise balance between voices keeps lines apart yet blends them harmoniously, like the tracery of vaulted ceilings in medieval churches.

Opus 9, the Kammersymphonie makes a surprise appearance among the vocal pieces, perhaps because, being a chamber symphony, it highlights solo instruments much in the way that Accentus uses solo voices. I'm not altogether sure that it achieves the purpose, for it sounds out of place. It is well played, as one would expect from Ensemble Intercontemporain, and Nott keeps the balance well. However, after the delicacy of the voices, violins can sound much more shrill than they would normally. Perhaps it's only my ears, but this piece sounded strangely dissonant in the context of the recording as a whole. It was recorded three years after the other tracks. Often this makes little difference, but in this case there isn't enough to bridge the very different aural effects.

A nicer surprise was the one wholly modern transcription, an arrangement of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra by Franck Krawczyk, made in 2002. Transcriptions are an Accentus speciality, partly because they expand the repertoire, but also because they highlight new aspects of well known works. In his Society for Private Performance, Schoenberg made transcriptions mandatory, so that the musicians and composers who participated could analyse what made a particular piece of music work. Krawczyck's transcription for a capella choir is much freer. Instead of a large orchestra complete with percussion, it is scored for what sounds like a smallish choir. Concentrating the music into a more restricted palette makes the monochrome shades seem even more subtle. Every microtone counts here, endlessly extended and varied. Each abstract sound mutates in timbre, blending into seamless pure sound. Even the boundary between singing and breathing is breached, brilliantly. Schoenberg wrote the last of the Five Pieces after returning from Mahler's funeral and inscribed at the end that it should be played “wie ein hauch” (like an exhaled breath). Thus different types of exhaled breath are written into Krawczyk's score, weaving in and out of the extended choral lines like a pulse. The effect is extraordinarily intimate, as if the listener were within the choir itself, feeling the frailty of physical experience. It is a piece that repays detailed listening.

If his Opus 50 compositions are any measure, Schoenberg regained a sense of faith towards the end of his life. In Dreimal tausend Jahre, he uses simple SATB balance made graceful by gentle harmonic blending. It is as if he returned to the purity of Friede auf Erden, but with greater assurance and technical sophistication. He had returned full circle to the faith of his birth. De Profundis uses the text of Psalm 130, in Hebrew. The words, “O Israel, trust in the Lord” were poignantly trenchant following the establishment of the new country. Individual voices have much more prominence here, leaping out from the texture. It is the voice of the individual, at ease with being part of the group. The individual voices of Accentus performers are surprisingly familiar, since we've been hearing them in ensemble all along.

Anne Ozorio



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