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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Pelleas und Melisande, Op.5 (1902-03) [41:21]
Variations for Orchestra, Op.31 (1928) [21:36]
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
rec. Mann Auditorium, Tel-Aviv, Israel, 1988 (Op. 5); 1975 (Op. 31)

In 2011 Helicon Classics issued a 12 CD set of live recordings (1963-2006) celebrating Zubin Mehta’s forty year association with the Israel Philharmonic. I bought the box at the time and have enjoyed the superlative recordings on offer ever since. Over the last few years they have been issuing individual discs of live concerts. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard any of these, so I was thrilled when this recent release came through the post-box.

The Orchestra is one of Israel’s oldest cultural institutions. Founded by the violinist Bronislaw Huberman in 1936 “to unite the desire of the country for an orchestra with the desire of Jewish musicians for a country”, it was originally made up of Jewish musicians who would have had an uncertain fate at the hands of the Nazis, had they stayed put. Toscanini conducted the orchestra’s first performance. The IPO appointed Mehta Music Advisor in 1969, Music Director in 1977, and Music Director for Life in 1981. He is now an honorary citizen of Tel Aviv. He has built his reputation on a core repertoire including Bruckner, Mahler, Richard Strauss and Tchaikovsky. His interpretations are marked by dynamism, vigour, passionate intensity and potency. In fact, he’s one of the most charismatic maestros on the podium.

Schoenberg completed Pelleas und Melisande in February 1903 and it was premiered two years later at the Musikverein, Vienna with the composer conducting. It came about following a suggestion from Richard Strauss, and the work is based on Maeterlinck’s drama. Schoenberg dropped the accents in the French title and named his tone poem in German. Little did the composer know at the time, but Debussy was putting the final touches to his opera of the same name, which was due to premiere in Paris. Fauré and Sibelius also wrote incidental music on the same subject.

I haven’t heard this work for many years, and I didn’t realize what I was missing; it is more than welcome back into my life. This is early Schoenberg, hyper-romantic, pre-atonal and pre-dodecaphonic. It is a single movement work, made up of several inter-connecting sections, and is scored for a large orchestra. Whatever people’s preconceptions surrounding this composer’s music, that it is austere and inaccessible, Pelleas is in the same camp as Verklärte Nacht and Gurrelieder – he could certainly pen a good tune.

Mehta’s qualities as a conductor, that I have already highlighted, seem tailor-made for this score. Whilst he doesn’t allow the music to degenerate into an emotional maelstrom, there is an inner fire and passion in his reading. I admire the way he builds up the climaxes, and sustains the narrative throughout in a logical and tightly-knit way. The IPO display great virtuosity and Mehta draws myriad shadings, especially from their woodwinds, to paint a rich vibrant tapestry of sound and colour. A studio recording from the same year and with the same forces is available on Sony (SK 45870), interpretively similar but in better sound.

The Variations for Orchestra Op. 31 were completed in 1928, and premiered the same year by the Berlin Philharmonic under their conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. It was Schoenberg’s first twelve-tone composition for large orchestra. Whilst the Variations present a technical challenge to any orchestra, the IPO acquit themselves admirably. Mehta’s intellectual grasp of this complex structure permits him to shape the architectural layout of the piece logically, and realize his vision admirably. This composition points the way to new horizons and possibilities for those willing to persevere.

The mono recording has come up well in the re-mastering process. My only grumble would be the booklet notes. These omit any mention of Op. 31, and reproduce what looks like an excerpt from the original programme notes of the 1988 (Pelleas und Melisande) concert. I would have thought that if any work needed a few words of explanation, the Variations would fit the bill. A portrait of the conductor is included. Notes are in English only.

Stephen Greenbank


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