> Arnold Schoenberg - Chamber Symphony No.1 [AT]: Classical CD Reviews- June2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Chamber Symphony No.1, Op.9 (1906)[21.03]
Verklärte Nacht, Op.4 (1899)[31.45]
Chamber Symphony No.2, Op.38 (1939) [21.32]
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Heinz Holliger
Rec. Casino Zogernitz, Vienna, June 1989 (1), Teldec Studios, Berlin, September 1992 (2 and 3)
APEX 0927 44399 2[74.20]


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Can any composer have written so many bona fide masterpieces in their early career as Schoenberg? Before his opus numbers were much into double figures he had produced works of the quality of the massive Gurrelieder, the stunning Second String Quartet and two of the great pieces on this disc, Verklärte Nacht and the seminal Chamber Symphony No.1, all in the sumptuous late-Romantic style that beats Wagner for excitement and harmonically out-Strausses Strauss. Regardless of their effect on the course of musical history, these are astonishing pieces in their own right, burning with a self-taught passion for music.

This passion spills out in every direction, often posing formidable technical and interpretative difficulties for even the finest musicians. Felicitously, the playing of the crack troops of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is one of the main reasons for the success of this disc. They really are outstanding, retaining their rhythmic security and control over tone colour even when attacking the most ferocious passages at ferocious tempi. This is most evident in the First Chamber symphony. The scherzo is blisteringly quick, not just in terms of pure tempo, but the aggression of the rhythms and the super-marcato nature of the accents. Indeed, all the way through this performance the conductor-oboist-composer Heinz Holliger drives everything very hard. Yet the texture is exceedingly clear : at no stage do the ever-present details in the woodwinds swallow the flow of the themes or disappear under the lines of the string quintet, and the nachtmusik of the slow section is gorgeous. However, the local detail dilutes the force of the symphonic organisation of the piece. Comparison with Simon Rattle’s superlative EMI version shows that it is possible to retain the clarity of the texture yet allow the large scale development of this extremely concentrated but exquisitely structured work to unfold. In that recording the most important structural details have a prominence not present in this more democratic performance.

Verklärte Nacht ("Transfigured Night") is the young Schoenberg’s take on the Tristan chord, sumptuous and grand. Versions tend to vary between the intimacy of the chamber version for sextet and the velvet of symphonic size string sections. Those too wary of compromise should choose big or small, the rest of us can enjoy the middle way of the fantastic playing, lean yet expressive, of this recording.

The Second Chamber Symphony is a more problematic work than the First. Less obviously brilliant, it does not strike the same dramatic tone, and the structure is less easy to decode. The playing here is outstanding, with a more blended sound than the other works on the disc. The wind solos are played magnificently, and the brooding, searching mood is just right for a work that is not sure if it is finished or not. A fantastic disc, budget price or not.

  Aidan Twomey


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