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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Pelléas und Mélisande, Op. 5 (1902) [40:23]
Erwartung, Op. 17 (1909)* [28:36]
Anja Silja (soprano)*
Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Craft
rec. 20 August 1999 (Pelléas); 16-18 February 2000 (Erwartung), Studio No 1. Abbey Road, London, UK
NAXOS 8.557527 [69:00]
Experience Classicsonline

When it comes to tempestuous premieres Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring gets all the press, even though Schoenberg’s Pelléas und Mélisande received a pretty hostile reception at its first night in Vienna eight years earlier. As with Le sacre it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about, but there are still those who consider Stravinsky and Schoenberg to be ‘difficult’ composers. Shrewdly, Naxos have embarked on a multi-volume Schoenberg series, in which key works are conducted by Robert Craft. Best known as Stravinsky’s amanuensis, Craft has made it his mission to promote and record the works of his master and those of the Second Viennese School.
This recording, originally released by Koch International, couples two of Schoenberg’s earlier works. The composer was unaware that Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande had already been set as an opera by Claude Debussy and premiered at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, in April 1902. Apart from being written as a symphonic poem, Schoenberg’s approach to Pelléas is radically different in other ways, condensing the story into a mere 40 minutes. As for Erwartung he chose another, grittier, tragedy, Marie Pappenheim’s dramatic monologue about a woman who murders her lover yet awaits a tryst with him.
In terms of its thrust and musical language Schoenberg’s Pelléas isn’t that different from Gurre-Lieder, the first part of which was completed by 1901. Both works share a post-Romantic sensibility and dramatic intensity, qualities that Craft points up very well indeed. (His recording of Gurre-Lieder is available on Naxos 8.557518/9.) In both recordings the conductor’s approach is direct and unsentimental, the ever-flexible Philharmonia responding with playing of considerable weight and power.
Schoenberg’s real achievement in the four linked movements of Pelléas is that he captures every aspect of this Tristan-style drama – complete with leitmotivs – within what is essentially a traditional symphonic form. The tender love music will surely remind listeners of Waldemar and Tove in Gurre-Lieder, but really it’s Wagner that most comes to mind, especially those surging climaxes and transformation of key themes. The Philharmonia are superb throughout, commanding when they need to be – the evolving Fate motif, now for brass, now for higher woodwinds – and sensuous, too, in the music we associate with Golaud the husband and Mélisande the bride.
In terms of its incisive writing Schoenberg’s Pelléas could be the perfect antidote for those who find Debussy’s masterpiece too long and tremulous for their tastes. It certainly helps if you know the story – no synopsis is provided ­– as the track titles won’t tell you anything at all. Just recently I took EMI to task over their meagre booklets, pointing out that Naxos usually get it right. Not so here, although Craft’s detailed essay on Erwartung is very impressive indeed. What a pity Pelléas only gets a paltry half page.
I must agree with my colleague Brian Wilson (see his review) who quibbled about the coupling, albeit for very different reasons. It’s not that I dislike Erwartung, it’s just that I have a powerful aversion to Anja Silja’s distressingly wide vibrato. Hers has never been the loveliest of voices, so it was entirely appropriate to cast her as the Witch in Hänsel und Gretel at Covent Garden last year. Yes, she is suitably inward and dramatic in the quieter moments of this anguished monodrama – in Scene IV, for example – but even allowing for the angst of this work Silja’s wild vocals are just too distracting for me. I much prefer Jessye Norman (Philips 475 6395) who at least has the amplitude and steadiness that Silja sorely lacks.
Not having heard the original Koch release I can’t say how this transfer compares. What I can say, though, is that the Naxos sound is big and bold – if a little dry – which rather suits Craft’s robust view of these scores. There are other fine interpreters of Pelléas, Pierre Boulez and Zoltán Kocsis among them, but at least Craft’s version won’t break the bank. As for alternatives to Erwartung, I’d say just about any of them would be preferable to this one.
Naxos must be commended for resurrecting these Craft recordings, even if they aren’t always as persuasive as they could be. I certainly didn’t warm to this conductor’s Gurre-Lieder – try Gielen on Hänssler 93198 instead – but at budget price this review disc offers an attractive Pelléas at least.
Dan Morgan

see also review by Brian Wilson



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