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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
The Romantic Music of Arnold Schoenberg
Verklärte Nacht Op. 4 (1917, rev. 1943)
Sehr langsam
Etwas bewegter
Schwer betont
Sehr breit und langsam
Sehr ruhig
Pelleas und Melisande Op. 5 (1902)
Sehr rasch
Ein wenig bewegt
Sehr langsam
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Yoel Levi (conductor)
Recorded in Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia, USA on 2 October 1993 and 5 and 7 March 1994.
[77. 35]

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.

Christopher Fifield

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