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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Pelleas und Melisande (1902) [40:23]
Erwartung, Op.17 (1909)* [28:36]
Anja Silja (soprano)*
Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Craft
rec. Abbey Road Studio One, London, 20th August, 1999 (Pelleas), 16th-18th February, 2000 (Erwartung).  DDD.
Originally issued by Koch International.
Text of Erwartung not included.
NAXOS 8.557527 [68:59]
Experience Classicsonline

Haters of Schoenberg’s atonal excesses, myself included, need have no fears about Pelleas und Melisande, a work of ripe late Romanticism, though, surprisingly, its 1905 premiere in Vienna apparently caused riots.  As in the case of Mozart, Prague showed greater appreciation of the music.  Perhaps it was Schoenberg’s evocation of the mystery of Maurice Maeterlinck’s plot which perplexed the Viennese audience but, really, if you like Richard Strauss’s music – the Alpine Symphony, for example, though Schoenberg is less specifically descriptive – you’ll like Pelleas; his use of the whole-tone scale here is no more adventurous than its employment by Debussy from whom, indeed, he may have ‘borrowed’ it.

Pelleas is not exactly a tidily organised score – sprawling is not too strong a word for it – but I react to it much more positively than to that much-praised work of the same period, Gurrelieder - I’m afraid some friends and I long ago renamed them the Dreary Lieder.   Surprisingly, since Robert Craft is such an acknowledged expert on Stravinsky and Schoenberg – the Naxos booklet even contains an ad for his book about them and other musical figures, Down a Path of Wonder – I was less than bowled over. 

Ideally, the music needs a firmer hand and/or a more focused orchestra than are on offer here; to some extent, I found myself wondering why I had liked the music.  The colourfulness is there, but the direction is lacking and I ended up placing the work almost in the same category as the Gurrelieder.  I had to play Strauss’s Alpine Symphony – Neeme Järvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on Chandos – just to make sure that I hadn’t somehow lost sympathy with the late-Romantic idiom; I hadn’t.  I hope to review that Järvi Strauss recording in the November, 2008, Download Roundup. 

In view of the success of several of these ex-Koch recordings by Robert Craft – I’m thinking especially of his versions of Stravinsky’s Greek-themed ballets, Apollo, Agon and Orpheus (8.557502) – his comparative failure here is most surprising.  Perhaps he just didn’t gel with the Philharmonia as well as he does with the LSO and St Luke’s Orchestra on that other recording. 

There already exists a fine mid-price version of Pelleas from the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan, rather more logically coupled with another major work from Schoenberg’s early period, Verklärte Nacht (4577212).  Tony Haywood partly recommended a budget-price Sony recording of the same coupling (SBK63035, no longer available – see review) – he liked Boulez’s Verklärte Nacht but thought the playing in Barenboim’s account of Pelleas too scrappy by comparison with Karajan or Sinopoli - also DG, no longer available. 

Dave Billinge recommended Edo de Waart’s Pelleas with the Sydney SO (ABC Classics 4545142, with Five Orchestral Pieces, etc. – see review) and Colin Clarke liked the coupling of Pelleas and the Piano Concerto on CHAN10285X – see review – though he, too, ultimately preferred Karajan or the Ultima coupling of Boulez’s Pelleas and several other major Schoenberg works. 

That Ultima version has been replaced by an equally inexpensive reissue on the Apex label (2564699845).  There is also another very low-price 2-CD set on EMI Gemini, coupling Verklärte Nacht and Pelleas with several other works (3714922 – ECO/Barenboim and CBSO/Rattle).  I don’t think we have reviewed this in its present form, but TH referred to Barenboim’s contribution positively in his review of the Sony/Barenboim (see above). 

The Naxos coupling, Erwartung, is not exactly the most logical partner for Pelleas.  (Nor, incidentally, was the original coupling, Pierrot Lunaire.)   It’s a far tougher proposition than Pelleas or Verklärte Nacht, though a mere seven years separate it from the earlier work.  The interim had seen Schoenberg’s First String Quartet and First Chamber Symphony in which, to quote Oklahoma, he’d gone about as far as he could go in terms of conventional musical language.  The Five Orchestral Pieces of 1909 and Erwartung - also 1909, though not performed until 1924 - were his first atonal works. 

I have to admit that I never was as receptive to Schoenberg’s Erwartung or Pierrot Lunaire as I was to Pelleas (or thought I was until now).  I’m afraid that this performance did nothing to convert me, though the sheer power of Anja Silja’s voice is undeniable.  I can only report that those who are more attuned to the music than I am recommended her performance in this work and that Tony Haywood recommended the Silja/Craft reissue of Pierrot Lunaire (8.557523 – see review). 

The recording of both works is good and there are detailed notes, especially in the case of Erwartung – but no text and not even a reference to a website where the text may be found.  Nor will you find anything on the Naxos home-page. 

I’m still left wondering why Naxos chose to couple these two performances – Craft also recorded Verklärte Nacht for Koch and that would have been a more logical coupling; it would also probably have sold more copies.

Brian Wilson


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