Scared of Schoenberg? Fear not: this marvellous compilation is
the perfect introduction to his music for those of us who feel
intimidated or worried by him, not just because it contains such
a spread of his most essential works, but because its emphasis
is on the musicality and, yes, melody of Schoenberg’s work.
Yes, the stridency and atonality is there, but be prepared to
hear lyricism and beauty that you just weren’t expecting.
Rattle is present most often here, and in many
ways his work personifies what I’ve described. Rattle has always
been an enthusiastic advocate of 20th Century and
contemporary music, and so he brings out the excitement of the
works, but he is also a reliable (safe?) pair of hands and he
crafts this music like a master, helped by his own CBSO. The
Variations for Orchestra can often seem forbidding and
intimidating due to their brazen atonality, and Rattle certainly
doesn’t shirk the violence of the music. His performance has
an underlying momentum behind it, however, conveying the purpose
and structure behind this music. After all, the composer structures
it in an almost classical way, and Rattle evokes the inexorable
march through each variation to the final, maddeningly inconclusive,
chord. He doesn’t run away from the violence of the Five
Orchestral Pieces either, and yet there are moments of astonishing
beauty here. The fourth piece in particular really took me aback
thanks to the sheer lyricism that Rattle milks from the score.
He even manages it in Erwartung where the terrifying
psychodrama is set in a fresh context of orchestral clarity.
Yes, the woman’s disintegrating mental state is catalogued viscerally,
and Phyllis Bryn-Julson straddles the tempest with remarkable
confidence, but it is for the orchestral detail that I shall
remember this performance: the forest and the moon are drawn
beautifully (again) by the orchestra and throw the woman’s trauma
into surprising relief.
The Chamber Symphonies are similarly revelatory.
The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group have a justified reputation
for excellence in this repertoire, and Rattle brings his sense
of structure to elicit an admirably purposeful performance from
them. It is the Second Chamber Symphony that grabbed my attention
more, though, because Tate and the ECO, perhaps a surprising
combination for Schoenberg, focus on the tunefulness of the
work with clarity of orchestration and an unfolding melodic
line. This, after all, is Schoenberg at the end of his life
when he was returning to traditional tonality. He famously said
during his late exile in the US that “there are many great works
still to be written in C major”.
Verklärte Nacht is given in the original
string sextet version and the emphasis again is on beauty of
expression. In my view the intimacy of the sextet is much better
than the string orchestra version, and intimacy is one of the
marks of the Artemis Quartet’s approach. The ending of the peace
is truly transcendent, evoking the renewal of the whole scene
through the forgiveness and unconditional love which the work
describes, and the melodious central section is powerful and
arresting. They don’t shirk the drama, though, and the earlier
sections, describing the woman’s remorse, are turbulent and
striking. Their performance leaves you convinced of the work’s
Straussian nature: atonality is close, but has not arrived yet.
All in all, then, this is the perfect place to
begin an exploration of Schoenberg’s work. After this, and if
you’re still feeling brave enough, you can go onto the more challenging
world of the Second String Quartet, but that’s for a braver reviewer
than me! The sound is excellent in all the works. One minor gripe:
the documentation is pretty minimal and you don’t get the texts
or translations for Erwartung or the poem on which Verklärte
Nacht is based, though at this bargain price you can’t really