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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25 (1861) (orch. Schoenberg, 1937) [41:32]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene (Accompaniment to a cinematographic scene) (1929-30) [8:58]
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Marc Albrecht
rec. 2014, NedPhO-Koepel, Amsterdam
PENTATONE PTC5186398 SACD [51:04]

I was delighted when this new release came through the letter-box for review. I have always had a fondness for Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms' Piano Quartet in G minor, considering Brahms’ original has an underlying symphonic quality. Schoenberg justified his arrangement as follows: "1. I like the piece. 2. It is seldom played. 3. It is always very badly played, because, the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted for once to hear everything, and this I achieved". Yet, he adhered faithfully to Brahms’ style, and changed not one note of the composer’s original. Later, he jokingly referred to it as ‘Brahms' Fifth Symphony’, The arrangement was penned between May and September 1937, and premiered in May 1938. The composer was living in Los Angeles at the time, lecturing at the University of Southern California, having fled Austria in the early thirties when the Nazis came to power.

The two other versions of the Quartet orchestration I have are the excellent 1990 recording made by Gennady Rozhdestvensky with the London Philharmonic on the now defunct Collins Classics label, and Simon Rattle’s second recording of the work with the Berlin Philharmonic; I’ve never heard his 1984 CBSO recording. Incidentally, that EMI-Warner Classics release also includes the Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene and the Chamber Symphony No. 1. It is regrettable that Pentatone didn’t include something else to extend the duration of their more meagre offering. Nevertheless, listening to all three recordings in a head-to-head comparison, the Netherlands PO/Albrecht definitely come out tops, in terms of audio quality. Pentatone achieve a more rich, voluptuous and plush sound, with a deeper perspective. This is aided by the wonderfully warm and spacious acoustic of the NedPhO-Koepel, Amsterdam.

Listening to the Netherlanders, one cannot but admire Schoenberg’s expert and masterful scoring in this chamber music writ large. Albrecht inspires his band to play with great commitment and deliver a well-argued performance. The opening movement is lushly textured, both sombre and graceful by turns. The following Intermezzo is deliciously evocative of a rustic landscape, and the diaphanous woodwinds are deftly handled. The Andante is lyrically persuasive and convincingly contrasted with the more noble military-sounding section. For the finale, Rondo alla Zingarese, Schoenberg augments the standard section with cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, xylophone and triangle to add flavour to the jaunty Hungarian rhythms. The Netherlanders fire on all cylinders with rhythmic and melodic bravura. I wonder what Brahms would have thought?

Once Schoenberg had settled in the States, he was approached by Hollywood, via the director of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Irving G. Thalberg, who had heard a radio broadcast of the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4. His plea was in vain, with Schoenberg’s intransigent demands not being acceptable. The composer wanted films to be tailor-made to fit his music, rather than the other way around. That was goodbye to Hollywood. Several years earlier in 1929, he had received a commission from the publisher Heinrichsen for some music to accompany a silent film. The result was Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, and it portrays three different moods: ‘Threatening Danger’, ‘Fear’ and ‘Catastrophe’. Again, the music didn’t fit the film, but was premiered as a stand-alone orchestral piece in Frankfurt in 1930 by Hans Rosbaud. Otto Klemperer conducted a performance shortly afterwards. It was not until 1973 that three films were made to accompany the music.

Albrecht gets right to the heart of this nine minute twelve-tone work, with a performance that vividly conveys the bleakness of the landscape. All the elements are there – desolation, fear, portent and impending doom. For an alternative version, Robert Craft’s convincing account on Naxos (8.557529) is well worth seeking out.

These compelling accounts, in stunning sound quality, more that compensate for the short measure.

Stephen Greenbank



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