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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Moses und Aaron – opera in two acts (1928) [110:06]
Moses: Wolfgang Schone (bass)
Aron: Chris Merritt (tenor)
Young Girl: Irena Bespalovaite (soprano)
Young Man: Bernhard Schneider  (baritone)
Priest: Karl-Freidrich Durr (bass)
First Elder: Ulrich Frisch (baritone)
Second Elder: Sasa Vrabac (tenor)
Third Elder: Stephan Storck (baritone)
Invalid Woman: Emma Curtis (mezzo)
A Naked Youth: Alois Redel (tenor)
Polish Radio Choir, Krakow/Marek Kluza
Stuttgart State Opera Children’s Chorus/Stuttgart State Opera Chorus/Michael Alber)
Stuttgart State Orchestra/Roland Kluttig
rec. Stattsoper Stuttgart, Germany, live, 8, 10, 13, 20 December 2003
NAXOS 8.660158-59 [52:02 + 60:47]
 


“O wort, du wort, das mir fehlt …[O word, thou word, that I lack]
 
Surely one of the most poignant, touching, yet chilling expressions with which to conclude an opera … in any century. They are the final words of a distraught Moses as he falls to the ground bemoaning his inability to express the inexpressibility of God’s majesty.
 
Yet ironically it wasn’t words that failed Schönberg in his attempts to complete the magnificent torso of his opera, but the music. Having drafted a third and concluding act complete with text, he never completed the score. Perhaps his tireless work for the Jewish people and state in the exile of California took up too much of his time. Perhaps he was simply too pressed to earn a sufficient living. Possibly he felt increasingly that, in the words of the writer Lothar Knessl, “(it) marks the end quite conclusively both in terms of ideas and material.”
 
The roots of Moses can be traced as far back as an incident at Mattsee near Salzburg in 1921. During a period of anti-semitic agitation Schönberg, who was holidaying in the resort, was forced to leave simply because he was a Jew. In a later letter to Kandinsky he wrote, “I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me this year, and I shall never forget it. It is that I am not German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being…but that I am a Jew.”
 
Despite his conversion to Protestantism almost a quarter of a century earlier, the Mattsee incident echoed the thoughts and experiences of his fellow composer Mahler, who had once opined, “I am thrice homeless: as a Bohemian among the Austrians, as an Austrian among the Germans, and as a Jew throughout the entire world. I am an intruder everywhere, welcome nowhere.”
 
Schönberg didn’t however mope aimlessly about the situation. He acted decisively, initially by a re-assumption of the Jewish faith in 1933, then through planning - both in Europe, later America - for a national and spiritual rebirth of the Jewish nation. Moreover he became well known for providing practical assistance to Jewish musicians wherever and whenever he could.

Gradually the concept of a work on the subject of Moses and Aaron became central to his thinking. Moses the visionary leader at the heart of the biblical story, stern and compassionate, legislator and spiritual redeemer, became the heart of the way forward. Schönberg began to sketch a play, “Der Biblische Weg” (The Biblical Way) in 1926, which metamorphosed into an oratorio over the next two years. By May 1930 he had begun its conversion to an opera, taking just under two years to complete the first two acts. Despite his circumstances, it was something he clearly did aim to complete. He wrote to his friend Joseph Ash in that same year, “I should like to finish the third act of my opera…” adding, as late as 1945, in another missive to the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, “..my life task would be fulfilled only fragmentarily if I failed to complete at least those two largest of my musical…..works…Moses und Aaron and Die Jakobsleiter.” (“Jacobs Ladder” being an oratorio he conceived between 1917 and 22).
 
The opera not only provides a spiritual model but also acts as a political mirror. Moses is the prophet to whom God grants the “idea” but not the means to translate it into words; meanwhile Aaron cannot fully grasp the idea, but has the ability to communicate what he understands easily, and thus move the masses. The contemporary relevance to politics and the art of the “spin doctor” hardly needs over-emphasising.
 
To point up the chasm between the two brothers the role of Moses is almost completely confined to “sprechgesang” (i.e. literally speech-song), whilst the more mellifluous Aaron is free to sing openly. There are other characters in the drama, but their influence is small, only briefly commenting or interacting. The role of the third main protagonist instead is left to the chorus, thereby re-enforcing the opera’s origins in oratorio.
 
Whilst Moses has been more frequently performed in recent years it is hardly a repertory standard. This is a great pity as it is one of the most powerful and deeply affecting pieces of the twentieth … indeed any … century. True it has the “disadvantage” that it is one of the very few operas I can readily think of with no real “love interest”. Perhaps more forbidding for the average opera-goer is its densely argued musical and textural content, as well as its sheer intellectualism. It does rely a great deal on verbal interaction and as a “wordy” piece it really demands some appreciation of the text …. and sadly this is one element where this new Naxos release falls down. Although a good synopsis is provided, there is no link - as with some other Naxos releases - to at least a text on the Naxos website. Text and translation would of course be better still.
 
And … if I am to dwell upon faults for a moment I must regrettably add to my list the Aaron in this production, Chris Merritt. The American has been a fine singer over the years, not always it is true well caught by the microphones. However it is clear that by the time of these performances (December 2003), his voice has deteriorated quite alarmingly. Although he still has the reach (just) to cope with some of the cruelly high-lying sections of the score, any sustained passages are now subject to an unsteadiness of production that is very marked. This chronic wobble is an enormous pity since Merritt is an experienced, thoughtful and insightful Aaron, having undertaken the role a number of times internationally. Indeed to hear him in much better voice turn to the recording by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw under Boulez (DG 449 174 2). Recorded in 1995 the discs were produced in conjunction with the production at the Nederlandse Opera. Although there are signs of deterioration in his voice even here they are far less marked than in Stuttgart. This recording however was originally a full price issue.
 
Since much of the opera depends on these two protagonists, to have one lamed is a definite handicap. However the scales are rebalanced somewhat by the excellent work of Wolgang Schöne as Moses. Perhaps ideally there is a little too much “gesang” than “sprech” in his approach, although he can be excused to a degree since this is a trap which has ensnared many singers in Schönberg over the years. To achieve the right balance one should turn to the old Philips recording under the composer’s son-in-law, Michael Gielen (438 667-2). Recorded as the soundtrack to a film of the opera by the French director Jean Marie Straub, in conjunction with the Austrian broadcaster ORF, Gielen’s prophet is Gunter Reich. Despite the excellence of Reich (and Louis Devos as Aaron) the conductor consented to a large degree of studio manipulation on these discs in an attempt to achieve what he considered an accurate representation of Schönberg’s thoughts. The result has the singers very close in the aural picture, more a “theatre of the mind” than anything redolent of the opera house. An interesting experiment nevertheless if you track a copy down.
 
Returning to the matter in hand ….. the Stuttgart Choruses and Orchestra acquit themselves well. The orchestra in particular appear to have benefited in this sort of repertoire from their association with conductor Lothar Zagrosek, principal since 1997. Certainly the clarity and integrity of complex lines found in their Ring Cycle (Euroarts/TDK DVD 10 5399 9) are apparent here … some might say to more appropriate effect!  Furthermore Roland Kluttig was assistant to Zagrosek between 2000 and 2004, and the musicians clearly respond to his approach. Meanwhile the Naxos engineers capture the stage picture very well, pulling in a little closer than their Euroarts counterparts, without deleterious consequences. Apparent audience noise and stage movement is pretty minimal.
 
In conclusion I welcome this set, regardless of my criticisms. Despite their healthy position in the current record industry it is still a courageous decision by Naxos to launch such an issue. This is a demanding but ultimately very rewarding opera, one which sadly wouldn’t normally fly off the shelves ….. yet, at Naxos price it just might. Try and forgive Merritt his wobble, and seek out texts (and translations perhaps) over the web, or in your local music shop.
 
Ultimately then a very decent introduction to a great work for the impecunious buyer, and for the more specialist collector, an interesting and worthwhile second (or third ?) version.

Ian Bailey
 

 



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