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Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874-1951)
Pelleas und Melisande (1902/03) [38:07]
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 36 (1934-36) [31:16]
Kolja Blacher (violin)
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Markus Stenz
rec. 2013, Studio Stolberger Strasse, Cologne

Markus Stenz’s reputation as a Schönberg conductor is evidenced in his numerous performances and a fine recording of the Gurre-Lieder on Hyperion (see review). Having Schönberg’s eyes glaring at me and making me feel guilty for putting off reviewing this release for weeks I finally got to grips with myself, symbolically tearing aside that stripe on the right hand side that looks like crime-scene tape and diving in to find something really rather glorious.

There is no shortage of recordings of Pelleas und Melisande, and Markus Stenz has to tussle with classic versions such as those from Herbert von Karajan and the “valuable but somewhat contentious” Sir John Barbirolli, as well as more recent recordings by Robert Craft and Matthias Bamert. Having re-oriented my ears onto this huge late-romantic score I found myself enjoying Markus Stenz’s reading more than ever. Yes, there is a weight and emotional heft to this performance into which you can let yourself become immersed, but the overall impression is one in which the effect of the whole is delivered from a position of transparency and a sense of revelling in the sheer joyous colour and magic of the whole thing rather than becoming embroiled in heavy drama and Teutonic portentousness. The entire piece is presented on a single track, so referring to particular moments in this tale in music based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s “wonderful drama” is not as easy as some, but the transformations of mood and intent of the composer when conjuring the tender, amorous and fateful are as clear as anything, and the impact of the climaxes in this rich and vibrant recording hit the spot every time.

The later Violin Concerto is an entirely different kettle of fish, and while it has become a significant part of the 20th century concerto repertoire we are reminded in the booklet as to how the solo part was originally thought unplayable, and the work’s première and critical reception were initially mixed, to put it kindly. This remains a challenging concerto both for listeners and performers, and while it has been suggested that it should “emerge as ‘quite natural’ after repeated hearings” I confess to finding the more transparent appeal of Webern easier to locate. Whatever your take on Schönberg’s musical language, this is a terrific performance and recording. The balance doesn’t put the violinist in your lap, and all of those expertly played orchestral details come through nicely. Kolja Blacher, here playing his ‘Tritton’ Stradivarius, has in the past delighted us with his Bach on Naxos, playing his father Boris’s music, as well as in chamber music by Mieczysław Weinberg.

As with Pelleas und Melisande I’ve had a listen around to some other recordings of the Violin Concerto and have to come to a similar conclusion – this one is amongst the best around. Robert Craft’s recording on Naxos with Rolf Schulte is over-expressionist to my ears, Schulte’s playing hard-edged and unrelentingly forceful and heavily vibrato-laden even where the score would seem to suggest tenderness. Hilary Hahn with Esa-Pekka Salonen on Deutsche Grammophon is brilliant and more sympathetic, though there is something about the recording that makes the violin sound as if it has been carefully recorded somewhere not quite in the vicinity of the orchestra. In this regard I prefer the more natural Blacher/Stenz setting, but there is no denying the stunningly vibrant accuracy of Hahn’s performance. Others state their case well enough, such as Michael Erxleben with Claus Peter Flor on Berlin Classics in a powerful and full-frontal recording, with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra sounding uncompromisingly monumental and the violin solo rather high in the mix in an eternal struggle of presence one-upmanship.

All-round, I prefer the atmospheric and dramatic contrasts made by these Cologne musicians and can find much to admire in Kolja Blacher’s deft approach to the solo part. The more you hear this work the more its romantic character emerges, and in this regard its main protagonists here give it every chance. There are some stunning touches in the central Andante grazioso, and if you’ve been put off in the past by other recordings then this certainly has the potential to deliver the sense of discovery that can turn one on to a work previously held to be too impenetrable. When I’m feeling a little intimidated by Schönberg I can always remind myself of the lighter side of his character, as recalled by his children over on the Cybele label. This Violin Concerto is not light entertainment by any stretch of the imagination, but as promised the more you hear the greater your appreciation grows for what is after all an acknowledged 20th century masterpiece – especially in such a fine performance as this.

Dominy Clements


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