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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht Op.4 (1899, version for string orchestra 1943) [31.20]
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
Symphony No.2 for string orchestra and trumpet (1941) [25.09]
Baltic Chamber Orchestra/Leducq-Barôme
rec. 2018, St Petersburg Recording Studio, Russia
RUBICON RCD1043 [56.30]

Whether it was planned or a happy chance, I must congratulate Rubicon on coupling two such major works on a single disc. They were written nearly 40 years apart but somehow occupy a similar emotional space. Schoenberg's early masterpiece was written for string sextet. It was rearranged for full string orchestra, by the composer, in 1917 and then again in 1943 when he was living in the USA, probably to renew the copyright at a time Germany was out of reach. There is also an arrangement for piano trio by Eduard Steuermann which is well worth hearing. The string orchestra version of 1943 makes an even more powerful case for this superb piece of late Mahlerian emotionalism. It was originally written in 1899 at a time when Mahler himself had not reached that pitch of expressionist power - it would be a decade before Mahler penned the 9th and 10th Symphonies which this sounds most alike. When Schoenberg developed and then used serialism he left this sort of thing behind him, deciding that nothing more could be done with tonal music. Verklärte Nacht is possibly the easiest of his well known pieces to listen to but in no way can it act as an introduction to his later, much tougher music. In that sense it stands alone save perhaps for the Gurre-lieder.

Swiss composer Arthur Honegger is nowhere near reaching the exposure he should have. Though much of his output is available on record he is unaccountably neglected in the concert hall. A great 20th century symphonist with five marvellous compositions, he also wrote other symphonic works, concerti, oratorios, string quartets and achieved high status as a teacher. This 2nd Symphony is a three movement masterpiece of the utmost importance. It was commissioned by Paul Sacher for performance in Zurich in 1942. Though called a "symphony for strings" there is a striking passage at the end when a trumpet doubles the violins in the final chorale. The work is an unmistakeable lament for the destruction wrought by WW2 and though its emotionalism is a little less unrestrained than Schoenberg's it makes a most powerful effect.

A terrific CD by an orchestra I thought I'd not heard of. It turns out that the Baltic Chamber Orchestra are a subgroup of the St Petersburg Philharmonic. This goes a long way toward explaining why, as listening to this, I kept noting how well they play. Strength and virtuosity are there in spades, add to that a lot of passion and what have you got? A brilliant chamber orchestra. The conductor too was a new name to me. Emmanuel Leducq-Barôme is student of Mariss Jansons, among others, and has been leading a successful career in Russia. Whilst admitting that an orchestra of this quality could probably play well without a conductor one detects the presence of a guiding hand in these two urgent and powerful performances. I can confidently suggest that even if you have other recordings of both these masterpieces you still ought to hear this one. The recording is slightly more upfront than is good for it. Nonetheless all is cleanly focussed if lacking much sense of a space around the orchestra, which is surprising considering that, if I haven't got my studios mixed up, it is a fairly spacious 18th century church. The information given is rather sparse, a criticism one can level at the booklet overall which doesn't print Richard Dehmel's poem Verklärte Nacht that inspired Schoenberg and does much to explain the music. It doesn't even have tracking and performer information - that is only on the back of the jewel case. Rubicon may be saving money but another double fold in the booklet would have given the space for all that missing data. The essays on the music are just fine and the Klimt on the cover is very well chosen. Information on the artists is available online only.

Dave Billinge



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