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.