> Arnold Schoenberg - Pelleas und Melisande [TH]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Pelleas und Melisande, Op.5 (1905)
Orchestre de Paris/Daniel Barenboim
Verklärte Nacht, Op.4 (Version for String Orchestra, 1943)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Pierre Boulez
Recorded June 1977, Paris (Pelleas), September 1973, New York (Verklärte Nacht)
SONY ESSENTIAL CLASSICS SBK 63035 [71.32]


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This disc is something of a curate’s egg, and it is rather a paradox that the main budget competition for both these works actually comes from the same two conductors, albeit in the opposite pieces. Certainly one of the most satisfying recent accounts of Pelleas und Melisande comes from Boulez, a digital version that has now found its way onto the cheap, two-for-one Ultima label. The orchestra is the Chicago Symphony, on stunning form, and the very desirable couplings are the Piano Concerto (with Peter Serkin), the Violin Concerto (with Pierre Amoyal), and a thrilling account of the Variations for Orchestra, Op.31. Barenboim has recorded this 1943 string orchestra arrangement of Verklärte Nacht twice, most recently with the Chicago orchestra. However he made an excellent recording very early in his career (1967) with the English Chamber Orchestra and that has stood the test of time rather well. It is now on EMI’s Matrix series, and has stimulating couplings in Bartók’s Divertimento and Hindemith’s Trauermusik. Add to this competition Karajan’s famous Berlin disc of Pelleas and Verklärte Nacht, now at mid-price on DG, and this Sony re-issue is up against it. I’m afraid it is only a partial success.

I must declare straightaway that out of the two performances, I felt that Boulez’s Verklärte Nacht was the most convincing. Much has been made, over the years, of Boulez’s overtly analytical approach to conducting, his refusal to linger, his ‘cleansing’ of unwanted emotional excesses in many pieces. Though I think this is often over-stated (especially given his mellowing in recent years), there is much about this 1973 recording of Schoenberg’s masterpiece that could aptly fit these descriptions, and much to the music’s benefit. The very opening is a case in point; Boulez is determined that the initial marking of sehr langsam (very slowly) need not mean lingering lovingly over every last semiquaver. His forward momentum is strong and direct, and Schoenberg’s often over-heated Romantic textures emerge with a clarity and precision that is refreshing. This does not mean that the all-important climactic points are under-played, quite the contrary. Sample the sumptuous chords at 7.15 (track 5); only Karajan dwells longer here, and even that sounds a little over done by comparison. The subdued ending is truly ethereal, and Boulez coaxes playing of wonderful refinement and luminosity from the New York strings, with a rather forwardly balanced recording (typical CBS vintage) actually helping his vision of the piece.

Barenboim’s Pelleas, on the other hand, is marred by some rather scrappy playing from the Paris Orchestra, a recorded sound that is very backwardly placed (with some obvious tape joins) and muddy, opaque textures at climaxes. This is not very helpful in a piece that can sound muddy and opaque in the wrong hands. Barenboim does keep a reasonably firm grip on the sprawling structure, but this work needs more than that. It is an intensely symphonic score, with an elaborate network of thematic cross-references, and Boulez’s iron grip on the piece, coupled with vastly superior playing and recording, simply outclass this version on every level. There is little doubt that if Barenboim were to re-record this work today, his years of experience as a Wagnerian would make him far more convincing. So, if you must have this coupling (and it is a very logical one), seek out Karajan or, at full price, Sinopoli’s luxuriant readings with the Philharmonia, also on DG.

Tony Haywood


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