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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
CD 1 [71:23]
Verklärte Nacht Op. 4 (1899) [28:46]
Artemis Quartet, Thomas Kakuska (viola), Valenti Erben (cello)
rec. December 2002, WDR Funkhaus, Cologne
Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1906) [21:50]
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. October 1993, Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Chamber Symphony No. 2, Op. 38 (1906) [20:33]
English Chamber Orchestra/Jeffrey Tate
rec. December 1987, Abbey Road Studios, London
CD 2 [71:58]
Five Orchestral Pieces Op. 16 (1909) [18:40]
Erwartung, Op. 17 (1909) [29:52]
Variations for Orchestra Op. 31 (1928) [23:28]
Phyllis Bryn-Julson (soprano) (Op. 17)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. April 1988, Arts Centre, University of Warwick (op. 16); October 1993, Symphony Hall, Birmingham (opp. 17, 31)
EMI CLASSICS 20TH CENTURY CLASSICS 2067852 [71:23 + 71:58]


Experience Classicsonline

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 complain.

Simon Thompson


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