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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Herzgewächse, Op.2 (1911) [3:31]
Pierrot Lunaire, Op.21 (1912) [36:30]
Four Orchestral Songs, Op.22 (1916) [13:32]
Chamber Symphony No.1, Op.9 (1906) [20:20]
Eileen Hulse (sop) (op. 2); Anja Silja (sprechtstimme) (op. 21); Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo) (op. 22)
Members of the London Symphony Orchestra (op. 2); Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble (opp. 9 & 21); Philharmonia Orchestra (op. 22)/Robert Craft
rec. American Academy of Letters and Arts, 1997 (op. 21), SUNY Purchase, NY, 1998 (op. 9) and Abbey Road Studios, London, 1994 (op. 2) and 1998 (op. 22)
NAXOS 8.557523 [73:53]

Naxos’s reissues of the Koch/Robert Craft series continue with what must be one of the most enticing Schoenberg collections around. This is a well-nigh ideal introduction to his Expressionist years, with only really the Five Orchestral Pieces and Erwartung missing. All the pieces are in safe hands with these performers, and only in a couple of cases would I opt for other recordings.
The discs opens with that curious little masterpiece Herzgewächse (Love’s Foliage), a short setting of a typical text by Maeterlinck, dense with symbolism and period angst. It’s scored for coloratura soprano, harmonium, celesta and harp, and odd but colourful accompaniment that glints and wheezes below the adventurous vocal line. If angularity of phrase and width of interval are seen as characteristic of Expressionist compositions, then this takes the biscuit – the singer needs a three octave compass and at the end is asked to soar up to F above top C, and sing it pppp! It’s an almost insane demand, but sopranos whom take this piece on are usually up to it, and Eileen Hulse is well on top of things. She has a pleasingly rounded tone, and if I miss the razor-sharp edge and precision of Christine Schaeffer and Boulez (DG, also coupled with Pierrot Lunaire), Hulse does invest the song with more warmth and feeling than some.
The rendition of Pierrot Lunaire is also pretty good, though here it’s how the term sprechtstimme (speech-song) is interpreted that is the moot point. Anja Silja is as adept in this repertoire as any, and she is my favourite recorded Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck (with Dohnanyi, Decca) so she knows what’s needed. In this instance, she chooses more to ‘sing’ rather than speak, and this makes the songs less histrionic, more ‘normal’ (musical?) compared to other sopranos. For instance, at the end of ‘Der Kranke Mond’ (The Sick Moon, Tr.8) she simply sings the closing line softly and lets it fade away, virtually ignoring Schoenberg’s instruction here. Jane Manning (with Rattle on Chandos) makes a curious gurgling noise, very theatrical, making the words dissolve down into the depths. Schaeffer is somewhere between the two, linking it perhaps more to its cabaret origins, but it highlights the problems of interpreting this work and that infamous sprechtstimme marking. Silja is certainly alert to the mood of the text and she is beautifully accompanied by Craft and his players, again quite romantically rather than with Boulez’s cool, almost nervous edge.
The Four Orchestral Songs are lovely creations, sensual settings of three Rilke poems and one by another Expressionist favourite Stefan George. In many ways they hark back to the Wagnerian world of Gurrelieder rather than the hysterical paranoia of Erwartung or the wild expressionism of Pierrot. Catherine Wyn-Rogers has a mellifluous mezzo tone that suits Craft’s warm approach, again perfectly valid. I have got used to the glorious Yvonne Minton over the years, deftly accompanied by Boulez and the BBCSO, a filler to his Gurrelieder (Sony) but this Craft version has better sonics, with a wide-ranging sound and better orchestral focus.
The First Chamber Symphony is a wonderful piece, just about tonal but full of the youthful invention and harmonic experimentation that were to take him to the brink. It’s tightly structured, a debt to his beloved Brahmsian model, and this version – in its original chamber scoring – is lovingly phrased and beautifully executed. I miss some the daring and sheer élan that the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra bring to the piece (DG, coupled with the Second Chamber Symphony and the ‘middle’ version of Verklärte Nacht – an indispensable 20th Century disc) but the Craft recording is well in keeping with his general approach and rounds the disc off in style.
As has become the norm, the authoritative and expert notes are by Craft himself, but it’s a great shame there are no texts when three of the four items here are major vocal works. Knowing what is being sung is always important, but here the words are utterly vital to an understanding of the composer’s sound world and need to be followed. Luckily I dug them out from the rival version discussed above, as others will have to do, but at least Naxos provide a link to an online PDF file of the original text, albeit without the important translation. It’s a shame, but doesn’t prevent a firm recommendation for the playing, singing and recording.
Tony Haywood


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