Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms quartet has always sharply divided critical opinion. On the one hand, there are those who have regarded it as the equivalent of Brahms’s Fifth Symphony
; on the other hand, there are those who regard it as an over-rated travesty and seem to be particularly offended by Schoenberg’s use of a xylophone in the final movement. It falls into the category of works by one classical master fully re-imagined and re-interpreted by another – like, for example, the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an exhibition
– and should therefore really be regarded as a hybrid with its own identity, rather than as the exclusive work of one composer or the other. Ravel arranged Mussorgsky using all the resources of his orchestra as they existed in his own day: thus he employed the saxophone (an instrument that Mussorgsky probably never heard, since in his day it had only been used by a handful of French composers such as Bizet and Ambroise Thomas) and the celesta (an instrument not even invented until after Mussorgsky’s death). Schoenberg’s controversial use of the xylophone must be regarded in the same light; although the instrument had been employed by Saint-Saëns in his Danse macabre
as early as 1874, it was so little known in Germany that Strauss (like Saint-Saëns before him) had to give a description of the instrument in a footnote when he used it in Salome
thirty-one years later, although it had already made a symphonic appearance in Mahler’s Sixth
the year before that.
Rattle has always had a soft spot for Brahms-Schoenberg, and gave this transcription its first really recommendable recording in the 1980s as one of his earliest recordings with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (since its first performance under Klemperer there had been previous recordings, but unfortunately in none of those was the recording or the skill of the performers equal to their enthusiasm). Since then there have been a considerable number of recommendable readings, including one by Rozhdestvensky on Collins Classics re-released in 2011 which brings the work firmly into the neo-romantic camp of early Schoenberg (although it is not an early work) and several others which have emphasised the severe classicism of Brahms’s original ideas. Now Rattle revisits the score with his Berlin forces in live performances given over two days in 2009.
Rattle’s approach is now more severely classical than before, and his first movement does indeed sound very much like Brahms. It is, as one would expect, expertly played and extremely well recorded with no evidence of audience noise: no applause even at the end, for example. The xylophone in the final movement is fully integrated into the orchestral sound, and Rattle attacks the music with slightly more gusto than before. The players sound as though they are thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Rattle’s earlier recording has been re-released as part of a 2-CD set on Classics for Pleasure coupled with the two Brahms piano concertos played by Martin Tirimo and that digital recording still sounds very well, if rather more distanced than in this new Berlin reading; and of course the playing in Berlin even in live performance is more secure and simply ‘right’ than was possible in Rattle’s early days in Birmingham. On the other hand if you are looking for a more overtly romantic and distanced sound, then Rozhdestvensky (who is considerably slower in the first and third movements) will provide a challengingly different alternative.
The Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene
was intended by Schoenberg to be used for a film soundtrack for the newly devised ‘talking pictures’ and he was naïvely disappointed that the Hollywood style which soon evolved (and which he hated) meant that his score was never used for its original purpose. Nowadays of course we are accustomed to much more dissonant music than this in the soundtracks even of mainstream films.
Schoenberg himself made the orchestral arrangement of his First Chamber Symphony
given here because he had decided that the balance in the original chamber version was unsatisfactory, with five solo strings unable to contend in terms of volume against ten wind instruments. However he never withdrew his original version, and it is that which has almost invariably been performed and recorded until now. It is therefore a total delight to be able to report that Schoenberg’s second thoughts were exactly to the point and entirely justified. One can
now hear a satisfactory balance in the musical material. To begin with it seems that Schoenberg is merely expanding the solo string parts (although he retains a solo violin at once point); but towards the end of the first movement we suddenly find a trumpet doubling or replacing the cor anglais, and after that the rescoring becomes bolder, with soft trombones doubling bassoons and then taking over some of the lower horn passages. At the beginning of the slow movement Schoenberg reverts to the original scoring with solo strings, and the subsequent entry of the whole string body brings a surge of romantic fervour which exactly matches the feeling in the music. But Schoenberg (or Rattle) makes sure that the tutti
strings do not overpower the wind parts at any point and the clarity of the scoring remains untouched. The ending of the symphony has a terrific drive in the full orchestral version that the chamber original can never hope to rival. Following the score of the original chamber version the ear notices many delightful flavours and piquancies in the orchestration; one would wish to hear the full orchestral scoring used much more often. The Berliners’ playing is absolute perfection.
The other works on this disc are highly desirable, but for the full orchestral version of the Chamber Symphony
this recording is an absolute must. This appears to be its only recording; others which claim to be by full orchestra, such as those by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Mehta, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eschenbach or the Concertgebouw under Chailly, turn out to be of the original chamber scoring, as indeed is Rattle’s own earlier Birmingham recording. Those who want to hear the impact of Schoenberg’s modernism of thought will doubtless continue to prefer the chamber version; but those who want to experience the music in all its late romantic power will want this one.
Paul Corfield Godfrey