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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Violin Concerto [34:59]
Verklärte Nacht [28:06]
Isabelle Faust (violin)
Anne Katharina Scheiber (violin), Antoine Tamestit, Danusha Waskiewicz (violas), Christian Poltéra, Jean-Guihen Queyras (cellos)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
rec. 2018/19, Teldex Studio, Berlin; Berwaldhallen, Stockholm
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902341 [63:12]

This disc is a sparkling treasure, a beauty with the potential to change your understanding of Schoenberg’s music.

The booklet notes make the point that we have here two works from opposite ends of the composer’s life and career: Verklärte Nacht comes from the composer’s early, hyper-Romantic period in Austria, when he called himself Schönberg, while the Violin Concerto dates from the ‘30s in the USA, when he called himself Schoenberg. They make a wonderful pair of companion pieces, and there’s no one finer than Isabelle Faust to take us through them both.

Her previous collaborations with Daniel Harding and the Swedish RSO, in Brahms and Bartók, have been complete winners, and so it proves here. Her tone in the violin’s opening line is as chocolaty-dark as though it were being played by a viola, and the orchestral forces surround her with transparent, crystalline sound that makes you sit up and take notice from the off. Faust understands that, if you know how to uncover it, then this is a work of great beauty, not just intellectual rigour, and every phrase is crafted with the greatest sensitivity to nuance and colour. Listen to the way her double-stopping interacts with the spiky winds of the first movement, or the dance-like quality to the way she presents the second main theme. In the chilly second movement, there is horror among the beauty as the violin dances with the spectral orchestral line, while Faust leads the finale like an infernal dance, going out on a limb in front of the orchestra while they writhe maniacally behind her. Overall there’s a tone of joy, which isn’t a word you frequently associate with Schoenberg, and having Faust as the soloist encouraged everybody to up their game. It goes without saying that her third movement cadenza is breathtaking.

Daniel Harding’s shape of the structure is superb. He understands that, for all the work’s inventiveness, its structure is remarkably conventional, and he grounds it firmly in the Viennese tradition to which it is the successor. The orchestra match him with playing of commitment, precision and delectable beauty. In short, this is a winner.

The coupling of Verklärte Nacht, in the string sextet version, is equally tremendous, played with rapt sensitivity and the kind of collegiate music-making that only comes with musicians that know and trust each other deeply. In fact, it put me in mind of the Schumann concerto project that Faust did with Alexander Melnikov and Jean-Guihen Queyras where, over three discs, they played a concerto each and then joined forces for Schumann’s three piano trios (review). Faust has clearly built up a huge legacy of trust to assemble a team like this - who else could get stars like Queyras and Antoine Tamestit to play as part of a sextet?! - and, more importantly, to get them to play with such dedication and collegiate warmth. Listen, for example, to the trembling semiquavers that accompany the woman’s outpouring of her sad story, leading into music of the darkest devastation, before dissolving into music of shimmering warmth that accompanies the man’s generously passionate response. The last five minutes will give you the tingles. It’s a tremendous performance, close to a first choice if you’re looking for the sextet version of Verklärte Nacht, and the recorded sound helps it to breathe with transparency and great beauty.

So, in performances like these, what’s not to like? These bookends to Schoenberg’s career show what a versatile and important musician he was; someone to respect, admire and even, perhaps, to love.

Simon Thompson

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