Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 (1868, orch. Schoenberg, 1937) [42:17]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Accompanying Music to a Film Scene, Op. 34 [09:08]
Chamber Symphony No.1 (1906) in 1935 version for full orchestra, Op. 9b [21:58]
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 30-31 October, 5-7 November 2009, Philharmonie, Berlin
EMI CLASSICS 4 57815 2 [73:40]
I already have fine accounts of two of these three scores conducted by Sir Simon Rattle namely the Schoenberg orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 and the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No.1 in the original version for 15 soloists. Rattle made his recordings with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. They are included in a five disc set titled the Second Viennese School on EMI Classics 4575622. The present performances with the Berlin Philharmonic also demonstrate Schoenberg’s talents as an original and progressive composer as well as an orchestrator. I knew the Accompanying Music to a Film Scene only by reputation not having come across it before on record.
Recorded at live concert performances at the Berlin Philharmonie in 2009 the disc commences with Brahms’s four movement Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor orchestrated by Schoenberg in 1938. Brahms’s score is greatly esteemed a staple of the standard repertoire and according to musicologist David Ewen is, “one of the supreme achievements of chamber music.” In his career Schoenberg made many orchestrations and reductions rangingfrom J.S. Bach Chorales to Johann Strauss II Waltzes. At first it seems puzzling why Schoenberg exiled in the USA should want to go to the trouble of orchestrating a chamber score that was widely admired but not often played. Schoenberg gave several reasons for his orchestration stating that as a longstanding Brahms scholar he liked the score and wanted to save the music from neglect. In addition he felt that a good pianist would have the tendency to play too loud and drown out the strings. It was Otto Klemperer who conducted the première of the orchestrated Piano Quartet in Los Angeles in 1938. Schoenberg stayed generally true to Brahms’s orchestration but was unable to resist adding his own coating. Such are the lovely melodies and lush orchestral textures that Rattle fashions in the opening movement that one immediately wonders which Brahms symphony is being played. In the Intermezzo the colourful Berlin woodwind are remarkable together with the shadowy strings transporting the listener to a twilight world of shadowy woodlands glades. Remaining predominantly dark owing to the low strings the rich autumnal textures and russet hues in the Andante could easily have come from Brahms’ pen. Shafts of sunlight threaten to break through in the slightly brisker concluding section. In Rattle’s hands the feel of Hungarian gypsy dance in the Finale sounds wonderful in its orchestral guise with the use of xylophone and glockenspiel reminding me of Shostakovich.

Completed in 1930 Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Film Scene followed close on heels of the advent of talking movies in the late 1920s. Schoenberg had been commissioned by the Heinrichshofen Verlag in Magdeburg to write some film music. Composed using the 12-tone system there are three sections with titles to serve as a programmatic outline: Threatening danger, Fearful panic and Catastrophe. No specific film or scenario was given to Schoenberg although this seems hard to accept given the nature of the score. First heard in a radio broadcast in 1930 by the Frankfurt Symphony under Hans Rosbaud and premièred in public in Berlin a few months later with Otto Klemperer conducting, the score is rarely heard today. Don’t expect any of the overblown concoctions from Hollywood composers of the silver screen such as Max Steiner; Erich Korngold and Franz Waxman. Threatening danger casts a strong sense of dark and threatening foreboding. A chill feeling of increasing nervous anxiety pervades the Fearful panic section. Under Rattle’s baton Catastrophe could easily have been a depiction of the horror of trench warfare in the Great War concluding with an image of cities and towns laid waste. It’s all remarkably well performed.
The Chamber Symphony No.1 for 15 soloists was completed in 1906. Cast in a single continuous movement there are four discernable sections; sometimes delineated as five. Schoenberg’s score stands at the transition between the composer of late-Romantic music and the new dawn of the expressionist composer about to adopt 12-tone technique. Schoenberg described the score as, “The climax of my first period.” The unfamiliar progressive harmonic scheme of the score ensured a controversial première in 1907 in Vienna with some of the audience causing a commotion during the performance. A critic in the Viennese newspaper Extra-Blatt wrote that Schoenberg had written, “… savage, ugly noises which no respectable person would take for music. All this won’t last long. There is no future for him.” Another music journalist in the Berlin newspaper the Signale expressed his disapproval describing the work as, “a horror chamber symphony”. Schoenberg came to the conclusion that just five strings were out of balance with the ten wind instruments and consequently in 1935 made the version for full symphony orchestra heard on this disc. The first section is warm and Romantic with considerable forward momentum. Agitated and impulsive the Scherzo contains just the right amount of robust vigour. Mysterious and unsettling the slow movement never hints at peace and contentment. In the gratifying Finale Schoenberg’s writing is full of inspiration and ideas with the conclusion joyously high-spirited. Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic respond magnificently to a highly chromatic work that stretches the limits of tonality with its constantly changing temperament. Never has this ‘difficult’ Schoenberg score sounded more homogeneous. 

English music features strongly in the Berlin Philharmonic programme this 2011/12 season. Under Donald Runnicles Elgar’s Symphony No.1 will be performed for the first time with the orchestra since Arthur Nikisch conducted it in 1909. Semyon Bychkov has already conducted the Walton Symphony No.1 and Daniel Barenboim will present Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. In addition Jonathan Harvey’s new work Weltethos will be premièred this season. I’m hoping against hope that a Vaughan Williams cycle under the baton of Sir Simon is not too far away. Now that would be something.
Without doubt, this release will be a strong contender for my Recordings of the Year.

Michael Cookson 

Without doubt, this release will be a strong contender for my Recordings of the Year.