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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5a (1903) [43’20]
Piano Concerto, Op. 42b (1942) [20’21].
Amalie Malling (piano)
Scottish National Orchestra/Matthias Bamert;
Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Michael Schønwandt.
Rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, on aJuly 31st-August 2nd, 1987 and bDanish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, on May 31st, June 1st & 6th, 1994. DDD

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Schoenberg’s Pelleas is a huge, sprawling affair that almost defines post-Romanticism. Almost every orchestral excess is here; all that is missing is a ‘mystical’ chorus or two. But for all the huge surface detail and the complex textures, it breaks down nicely into four sections that convey four distinct ‘set’ of emotions. First there is ‘In the forest’ (Golaud meeting Melisande, including a ‘Fate’ motif); the Scherzo is a Fountain Scene (including Melisande losing her ring in the fountain, Pelleas and Melisande at the window and Golaud and Pelleas’ descent into the castle’s cellars; a heart-felt Adagio (the parting of the lovers) and a final ‘Sehr langsam’ that represents the Death of Melisande.

Bamert’s way with the score is to avoid the temptation to wallow and to attempt as much linear definition as possible. It is a worthy stance, although some may prefer Karajan’s individual way, particularly in the slow movement (predictably rich, on DG 457 721-2). Bamert’s strength in this slow movement is to be warm but not gooey, but he does not inspire the SNO to come fully to life – there remains an element of the studio about it all, at least until the hyper-Romantic gestures (around the seven minute mark), where at last the orchestra seems to start enjoying itself.

The opening is, however, more successful and sets out Bamert’s stall perfectly. Luxurious yet with lots of detail evident, there is much to commend. Later the Fate motif blazes out, and Bamert throughout manages to ‘stretch’ the music as appropriate to its ebb and flow.

The second movement shows capricious woodwind and a good measure of detail at the more heavily-scored moments; the finale, alas, does not blaze in the way it should. Here one needs Boulez’ clarity and his ‘new’ levels of expression (there is a generous Ultima on Warner 3984 24241-2 featuring Boulez and the Chicagoans that also includes the Op. 31 Variations and the Piano and Violin Concertos), yet the music also needs to enter a real twilit world that under Bamert’s direction it fails to achieve.

The twenty-minute Piano Concerto has received championship by the likes of Brendel, Pollini and Uchida. Amalie Malling cannot claim to be in quite the same league as these exalted names, but possesses a light touch that can be remarkably appealing and she works very well with her conductor, Michael Schønwandt. There is a neatness to exchanges in this delightful piece (especially the fast second movement) that makes for gripping and enjoyable listening. The disjunct melodies of the Adagio are expressively delivered from all sides (especially the marvellous oboist), and I also liked the piano’s witty response to the grand climax (around 5’50).

Interestingly, the expansive string phrases of the finale seem to link back to the world of Pelleas – not something that might immediately strike the listener were these two works not juxtaposed on this disc.

A thought-provoking coupling. Neither performance can be listed as a first choice, but the interest of this disc should not be under-played.

Colin Clarke


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