Talk about switching compositional styles. Off the top of my head I can’t think of anyone as influential who changed as drastically and as quickly as Arnold Schoenberg. First there was his early period around 1894/1907 with his extending of the compositional styles of the late Romantic composers rooted in the Austro/German tradition. Fine examples are his symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande
(1903) and the massive cantata Gurrelieder
(1900/11). In three sections, the first two of the Gurrelieder
are heavily Wagnerian in inspiration with section three more Mahlerian. Next in the middle period 1908/22 comes a loosening of traditional compositional style with the use of radical atonalism - sometimes known as “free atonality”.This is typified by his melodramas Pierrot Lunaire
. Finally from 1923 onwards Schoenberg developed and adopted his own atonal twelve-tone system, a type of serialism. Examples of this can be heard in his unfinished opera Moses and Aaron
(1930/32), in the Violin Concerto
(1934/36) and in the cantata A Survivor from Warsaw
It is rare to encounter these Schoenberg scores in performance particularly Erwartung
. However there is a surprisingly healthy number of both in the record catalogues. In these times of economic austerity with numbers of bums on seats being so crucial I would think that the chances of hearing Erwartung
being programmed by any of my local orchestras: the Hallé, RLPO, Manchester Camerata or BBC Phil are virtually nil. In May this year at the Dresden Music Festival I did attended a marvellous performance of Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande
played by the Czech Philharmonic under Ingo Metzmacher at the Semper Opera House. As luck would have it when I returned home from Germany a few days later this recording of Pelleas und Melisande
on the Profil label was waiting for me in the letter box.
Schoenberg’s symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande
, Op. 5 was completed in 1903 and premièred by the composer two years later in Vienna. Employing a large orchestra the score is cast in a single continuous movement with numerous interconnected sections. Schoenberg based the work on Maurice Maeterlinck’s dramatic play Pelléas and Mélisande
(1892). It traces the forbidden love of the title characters and is destined to end in tragedy. In many respects the story is not dissimilar to that of Tristan and Isolde. It is said that Richard Strauss may have alerted or suggested Maeterlinck’s dramatic play to Schoenberg. So lushly orchestrated, Schoenberg’s score can appear saturated with notes. This gorgeous wash of rich and colourful sound quickly shifts from one dramatic climax to the next; sometimes ecstatic, sometimes thunderous. I admire the way that Schoenberg gives all sections of the orchestra the opportunity to shine or at least be reasonably involved. I especially enjoy hearing the final section for its increasing weight and intensity of sound and its dark colouring representing the death of Melisande.
is a single act melodrama in four scenes for
soprano and orchestra; an apotheosis of the expressionist spirit.
Completed in a matter of weeks in 1909 Erwartung
uses a libretto that Schoenberg commissioned from a newly qualified
medical student Dr. Marie Pappenheim; a member of his circle in
Vienna. Pappenheim’s libretto is a psychological murder mystery
that explores various extremes of emotional state. It portrays
an anonymous woman referred to as “Die frau
” (The woman)
dressed in white who goes to meet her lover in a moonlit forest.
The text suggests that the woman is agitated and terribly scared.
In the final scene the woman finds the dead body of her lover
and expresses her anger that he may have been having an affair
with someone else. Pappenheim’s text doesn’t disclose who killed
the man. In the forest the distraught women calls out for help
but no one responds. She wonders if she can go on living without
her lover. As Die frau
New Orleans-born soprano Jeanne-Michèle
Charbonnet is highly convincing and could have been living the
part. Compared to the brighter and warmer toned Jessye Norman
on Philips the focused Charbonnet with her darker tone and near
mezzo register conveys a far greater sense of the woman’s anxiety-laden
temperament. Although prominent, Charbonnet’s vibrato never feels
obtrusive. All in all the ideally cast dramatic soprano gives
a mightily impressive performance reaching deep into the psyche.
The orchestra create an appositely chilling atmosphere. If any
work requires texts it is Erwartung
and I am extremely
disappointed that none has been provided. [You can find it here
As one expects from radio orchestra engineers the recorded sound from the Philharmonie, Cologne has splendid clarity, presence and balance.