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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Three Pieces for Orchestra [1929] [20:54]
Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874-1951)
Pelléas and Mélisande [1902-3] [40:21]
Dortmund Philharmonic Orchestra/Jac van Steen
rec. 5-7 October 2009 (Berg), 21-23 January 2013 (Schönberg), Konzerthaus, Dortmund, Germany.
MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM 9011807-6 [61:18]

The partnership of van Steen and the Dortmund orchestra is probably best known on disc for the central Romantic repertoire - Dvořák, Tchaikovsky and so on. In this recording of Second Vienna School composers, they provide strong credentials for their prowess in 20th century music.
 
This is a very interesting disc. The Berg is one of his best-known works, while the Schönberg used to be a bit of a rarity. Looking in the catalogue now, though, I see a fair number of comparatively recent recordings. Completed in 1903, it is a huge piece, lying amongst the composer’s major works between Gurre-lieder and the First Chamber Symphony. It shares the enormous dimensions of the former and some of the increasingly expressionistic musical language of the latter. For the listener, it does take some considerable perseverance and concentration. Seeing it as a programme symphony in various contrasted sections, as suggested by Berg, does help in finding one’s way through the maze of themes and development.
 
The Berg pieces are relatively concise, though no less complex, and much higher up the ‘dissonance’ scale than Schönberg’s relatively early piece. It is in the teeming complexity of Berg’s masterpiece that I find this recorded performance so outstandingly good. Perhaps because of the ‘Sound Ideal’, proclaimed by MDG in the booklet, every tiny detail in this extraordinary score comes through with complete clarity. One example - after the cataclysmic climax towards the end of the Marsch: the snarling muted horns are spine-chilling in their ignoble mutterings. This is the furthest remove from ‘easy-listening’, but I find it completely convincing - riveting.
 
This type of recorded sound is, to me, not so kind or so appropriate for Pelléas. This music, still late-Romantic in character, seems to call for a deeper perspective, allowing orchestral sounds to blend more subtly. The playing is terrific, powerfully characterised, and technically assured; but the climaxes are uncomfortably glaring. Some listeners will like this, for the elements in the drama such as Golaud’s jealousy and hatred, or the murder of Pelléas, call for a sound of unremitting violence. I just find it a little too ‘in your face’!
 
That personal reservation aside, this is a distinguished and valuable issue. Van Steen has the measure of this demanding music, and draws magnificent playing from his orchestra.
 
Gwyn Parry-Jones