The name Schoenberg will have many reaching for the
off-button before the first chord, but note the subtitle of this disc
(‘The Romantic Music of Arnold Schoenberg’) and there will be no cause
to. But anyway for how much longer are we going to find the music of
a man born when the nineteenth century still had a quarter of its length
to run too difficult to understand? Copland observed that Schoenberg
was still a part of the nineteenth century, while the composer himself
regarded his music as ‘a reconciliation of the styles of Brahms and
Wagner’, never a truer word as far as these two works are concerned.
Verklärte Nacht, or Transfigured Night, was originally
conceived as chamber music for string sextet, and dashed off in three
weeks in the heat of inspiration. He later revised it twice for string
orchestra. It’s based on a poem by Richard Dehmel, part of one called
Two People. It tells of a man whose partner has conceived a child
by another man, but through his compassionate forgiveness their world
becomes transfigured. Schoenberg himself had fallen in love in 1899,
with the sister Mathilde of his mentor Alexander Zemlinsky, and after
two years he married her. Premiered in 1903, the audience was shocked,
probably more by the story rather than the music, which is Wagner with
lashings of Richard Strauss. The observation ‘it sounds as if someone
had smeared the score of Tristan while it was still wet’ is too
harsh. Schoenberg and his bride moved to Berlin in 1901 and it was Strauss
himself who encouraged the younger man to compose music for Pelléas
et Mélisande, the play by Maeterlinck, which Debussy had
coincidentally just completed (its premiere took place in Paris in 1902).
Schoenberg chose a purely orchestral work rather than an opera, and
scored it lavishly for 64 strings, 17 woodwinds, 18 brass, and two harps.
Here again we are in the world of star-crossed lovers, and the same
D minor key as it happens, with a rough four-movement structure.
The composer once said, ‘My music is not modern, it’s
only badly played’. Well not here it isn’t. The players do huge justice
to the wide range of effects, tonal colours and palette of emotions.
The passionate string playing in Verklärte Nacht does this
not very well-known American orchestra great credit, while the textures
of the full orchestra in Pelléas et Mélisande are
stylishly lush in the love music and skittish in the third movement
‘scherzo’. Yoel Levi’s grasp of the whole is riveting and clearly structured,
and while Schoenberg may have only asked ‘that my melodies should be
known and whistled’, this disc does its very best to grant him his wish.