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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Pelleas und Melisande Op. 5 (1902-3) [37:01]
Erwartung, monodrama in one act Op. 17 (1909) [30:23]
Sara Jakubiak (soprano)
Bergen Philharmonic orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. June 2019 at Greighalten, Bergen, Norway
German text included

Even more clearly than with Beethoven, Schoenberg’s composing career can be divided into three periods. In the first, he is a post-Wagnerian late romantic. Works from this period include Gurrelieder, Verklärte Nacht and the first work here, Pelleas und Melisande. The works from this period have always been his most popular. In the second, he writes in the idiom of free atonality and is no longer a late Romantic but an expressionist. From this period, come the Five orchestral pieces, Pierrot Lunaire and the opera Erwartung, which we have here. In the third period, Schoenberg developed his serial method and we have the Variations for orchestra, the violin and piano concertos and the opera Moses und Aron. The serial method was of course taken up by a number of other composers, though the fashion for this has now passed and I think it may be the works of the second period which are currently the most influential. Of course, the distinctions between these periods are not absolutely rigid and there are some works which are on the cusp between them: the Second String Quartet, the one which includes a voice, is between the first and second period, and the Serenade between the second and third.

Pelleas und Melisande is therefore a late-Romantic work. It is, in fact, a Straussian tone poem and it turns out that it was Strauss himself who suggested the subject to Schoenberg. At that time, Strauss was still a leading modernist and had given considerable help to Schoenberg, who in return admired his works at least up to Salome, which came out later in 1905, the year in which Pelleas und Melisande was first performed. His tone poem is based on the Maeterlinck play, which was then enormously popular. Fauré had already composed incidental music for it and Debussy his opera; Sibelius was working on his incidental music at much the same time as Schoenberg.

Schoenberg aimed to follow the course of the drama closely, deploying a group of Wagnerian leitmotifs. The orchestra is large and the scoring very rich but, unlike Strauss, which it may superficially resemble, there is in it a constant play of polyphony, with complex interweaving lines going on most of the time.  As the idiom is also highly chromatic, the atmosphere is almost too rich, and the listener needs the cues helpfully given in the track listings in the booklet here. I don’t think the work is really a satisfactory whole but there are some splendid passages, such as the fate motif on muted brass, the scene in the vault with its trombone glissandi, Melisande grieving with the help of two cors anglais and two bass clarinets and her death with some magical writing for the flutes.

Erwartung (Expectation) is a very different matter. It is described as a monodrama, which means a work for only one character and it lasts half an hour. The libretto was written by Marie Pappenheim, who had just graduated as a doctor. She was also a writer and had links with the then new field of psychoanalysis. A relative of hers had been a patient of Freud’s colleague Josef Breuer, and the case study, under the name of Anna O., had appeared in their collaborative work Studies in Hysteria. The unnamed Woman, the character in Erwartung, is just such a personality: she is searching in a wood for her lover, ends up in the garden of her rival to whom she has lost him and comes across his body, whom perhaps she has murdered in a jealous rage (this was explicit in a draft of the libretto but was removed from the final version). As an opera character, she is therefore a cousin to such figures as Wagner’s Kundry, Strauss’s Salome and Elektra (and also Clytemnestra) and Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck – all distraught women with an obsession. It is a perfect subject for an Expressionist work.

There are four scenes, the fourth being much longer than the others. The idiom is that of free atonality with no key centre. The mood is constantly changing and so is the orchestral texture, which is astonishingly inventive and varied, far subtler than in Pelleas und Melisande and full of fine detail. It sounds as if it were just a constant wave of new invention, though rather there are constant variations on certain ideas with nothing ever repeated exactly. The vocal line calls at times for great refinement and at others for Wagnerian power to overcome the large orchestra. The whole work is like a nightmare; it is also, as the conductor Otto Klemperer once said, a tragic work of genius.

I should say that although Erwartung is occasionally staged, usually in a double bill with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, a programme I have seen, it is almost equally effective in concert performance and as an audio recording.

Edward Gardner secures superbly confident performances from his orchestra. I was made aware of his ability to elucidate elaborate textures by his recordings of Szymanowski and Lutosławski and the command of the early Schoenbergian idiom he showed in his recording of Gurrelieder. Sara Jakubiak is excellent as the Woman, tender and tremulous when required but rising to the sudden fierce climaxes with ease.  I was greatly taken with her performance of the role. The sound – this is a SACD but I was listening in two channel stereo – is lustrous and with plenty of bloom, and acoustically this is a quality production. I do, however, have to point out that the booklet, though it has helpful notes on the two works, has the libretto for Erwartung only in German with no translation, despite taking up several pages with advertisements for other recordings.

There is a surprising amount of competition, though the only other version I know which has offered this particular coupling is by Robert Craft, in his Naxos version with Anja Silja. The more obvious coupling for Pelleas und Melisande is Verklärte Nacht, from the same period and in a similar idiom, and there are several versions which offer this, though I think the celebrated Karajan one makes it sound even more like Strauss than it is already. For Erwartung, despite the fearsome difficulties of the work for both singer and orchestra, there are several excellent versions, though my ideal coupling, with Schoenberg’s other short opera of the time, Die Glückliche Hand, and the Op. 22 orchestral songs, has not yet been offered by anyone. Helga Pilarczyk with Hermann Scherchen (Wergo), Anja Silja in her other version with Christoph von Dohnanyi (Decca) and Jessye Norman with James Levine (Philips) all count as classics but are all quite old, and there are more recent versions which I have not heard. But if this coupling suits and you can manage without a translation of the libretto – or already have a version which contains one – this will do very well.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: John France

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