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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht, Op.4 (1899; for string orchestra 1943) [31:19]¹
Pelleas und Melisande, Op.5 (1902-03) [41:56]²
Chamber Symphony Op.1 (1906) [21:48]³
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor Op.25 (1861) orch Arnold SCHOENBERG (orch 1937) [42:41]º
English Chamber Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim¹
New Philharmonia Orchestra/John Barbirolli²
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Simon Rattle³
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattleº
rec. Studio No.1 Abbey Road, London 1967 (Verklärte Nacht); Kingsway Hall, London, 1967 (Pelleas und Melisande); Symphony Hall, Birmingham 1993 (Chamber Symphony) and The Maltings Snape, 1984 (Brahms-Schoenberg)
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 3 71492 2 [73:22 + 64:36]


The recently issued batch of EMI Classics, of which this is one, calls itself Gemini, though habitual readers will recognise each of the performances as part of the regular reissue programme. Some I’ve seen have been straight reissues of reissues whilst others have juggled things slightly. Readers may remember Barenboim’s Verklärte Nacht from EMI CDM5 65079-2 where it was coupled with Bartók’s Divertimento and Hindemith’s Trauermusik with Cecil Aronowitz. Barbirolli’s Pelleas und Melisande was coupled with Strauss’s Metamorphosen on CDM5 65078-2. And the Rattle Chamber Symphony previously sailed on an all-Schoenberg EMI CDC5 55212-2 with the Variations Op.31 and Erwartung. A lot of catalogue numbers to think about.

Consolidation in a two-disc slim line compilation makes a certain amount of sense if one doesn’t mind yoking disparate performances and recording venues and standards. This doesn’t much matter to me but there are getting on for two decades between the Barenboim and the Rattle and that shows not least in respect of engineering.

Barbirolli’s Pelleas und Melisande is valuable to have but a somewhat contentious reading. One admires in principle the devout drama he extracts all through the score – there were few half measures with him – but perhaps inevitably this comes at the expense of a cohesive view. I’m not sure how often Barbirolli programmed this in concert but to unsympathetic auditors there are moments that do sound to be taken to expressive extremes. Admirers however, and there will be many, will welcome the sheer phrasal generosity Barbirolli brings.

And I do prefer it as a performance to Barenboim’s relatively youthful take on Verklärte Nacht, a recording made in the same year in fact, 1967, when Barenboim was taking his first conductorial steps with the English Chamber Orchestra. There’s an intermittent failure of legato from time to time and for all Barenboim’s attempt at weighty sonority the results sometimes sound somewhat less than convincing.

In the context of the recordings by Barenboim and Barbirolli, who of course recorded Brahms together, those by Simon Rattle come as a sonic refresher.  The Chamber Symphony Op.1 is with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Here for the most part Rattle obtains lucid and convincing textures. Nothing is exaggerated or, in current Rattle fashion, melodramatically elasticated. His direction is intelligent, well balanced and textually self aware to a high degree. His forces prove every bit as dependable. I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the orchestration of the Brahms. There’s nothing wrong with Rattle’s conducting or the playing of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It’s not quite so splendidly recorded as the companion work. But the main problem - and obviously I’m not alone – is the point of it all. I know this is an adaptation for which Rattle clearly feels affection and admiration as he’s returned to it since, not least in Berlin. You can see a DVD of it on Euroarts with the Berlin Philharmonic recorded in 2004. As for me I can only wonder at his loyalty to a piece of garish chutzpah.

Such personal prejudice apart the two Rattle contributions are the most impressive constituent part of this latest EMI twofer; Barbirolli is hot-blooded but occasionally fallible and Barenboim can easily be supplanted by other performances. As such it’s not at all bad but in truth rather a mixed bag.

Jonathan Woolf 


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