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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Pelleas und Melisande, Symphonic poem for orchestra, Op 5 [43:25]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Drei Stücke aus der Lyrischen Suite [17:17]
Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan
rec. January 1974 (Schoenberg). November 1973 (Berg), Philharmonie, Berlin. ADD
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 423 132-2 [60:22]

These performances were first issued in the 1970s as part of a 3-LP box of music by the composers of the Second Viennese school. To the best of my recollection, Karajan included other works by Schoenberg, including the string orchestra version of Verklärte Nacht, as well as Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, Op 6 and other works, together with a selection of orchestral works by Webern. The set caused quite a stir at the time, not least because the music of these composers was far from core Karajan repertoire. I borrowed the set several times from the music library and I recall strugglingly vainly with the Webern and, to a slightly lesser extent, with the Berg works. However, I found Pelleas und Melisande a fascinating and intriguing score. One difficulty, though, was reconciling what I was hearing to the story. That’s much easier now on CD because DG helpfully divide the score into eleven tracks and Arnold Whittall’s valuable note includes a track-by-track description of the ‘plot’

It’s many years since I last heard this Karajan performance but returning to it now – and hearing it for the first time in CD form - the lustrous playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is even more magnificent than I remembered. Schoenberg conceived Pelleas und Melisande for a huge orchestra but the use of vast forces had nothing to do with musical megalomania – though some of the climaxes are colossal. Rather, I’m sure he was intent on making the best possible use of orchestral colouring to illustrate the story and the places in which it unfolds. Furthermore, the array of orchestral timbres available to him enables the complex counterpoint to be illuminated through a myriad of different instrumental hues. When you have a master conductor and orchestra playing the score, Schoenberg’s intentions can be truly realised.

Here, orchestra and conductor set their stall out, as it were, in the opening section where the orchestra renders to perfection Schoenberg’s musical depiction of the dark forest in which Golaud first encounters Melisande. Karajan clarifies the complex textures superbly but he does so without shining any bright lights on the orchestra; that would dispel the ambience. Instead, the music-making is full of half-lights.

Thereafter, Karajan and the orchestra are marvellous in the way they bring to life Schoenberg’s depiction of the characters and the action. For example, the point at which Melisande lets down her hair is illustrated with playing of consummate delicacy. Not long afterwards, though - and in complete contrast – the sinister music when Golaud threatens Pelleas in the vaults is frighteningly and vividly delivered. The love scene between Pelleas and Melisande (tracks 6 – 7) is played with wonderful ardour while at the end of this passage the death of Pelleas at the hands of his brother is properly brutal (tr 7, from 3:05). Later in the score, Schoenberg’s funeral cortège for Melisande is all the more effective because it’s so subdued; here the playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is wonderfully subtle. Finally, Golaud’s remorse is illustrated and accompanied by a review of bits of musical material first heard earlier in the work, all of which Karajan knits together seamlessly.

This is a superb account of Pelleas und Melisande. Karajan’s conducting is masterly; he conveys the sweep of the work yet at the same time he illuminates and clarifies an abundance of detail. The playing of the Berlin Philharmonic is simply peerless. It’s hard to imagine a better revelation of this fascinating score.

Berg arranged, for string orchestra, three of the six movements that comprise his string quartet Lyrischen Suite in 1929. In this present performance the music benefits from the wonderful collective skill and sheen of the Berlin Philharmonic. The sound that the orchestra produces is frequently gorgeous but Karajan’s concern for texture and his understanding of the music ensure that Berg’s music is never delivered with cloying sweetness. On the contrary, wherever it’s required, the playing has great incisiveness. The second movement, Allegro misterioso, is quite remarkable as music and the present performance is just as remarkable. For most of the time the Berlin Philharmonic’s strings play with what I can best describe as hushed virtuosity. Their collective discipline and superbly controlled dynamics mean that the strangeness of Berg’s music is superbly conveyed. By contrast, the concluding Adagio appassionato is delivered with great intensity. These three movements are full of searching music which Karajan and his players perform wonderfully.

DG’s analogue recordings from 1973 and 1974 still sound extremely good. These are performances that show the partnership of the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan at its formidable best. I’m delighted that Presto Classical have licenced it because a disc of this quality should never be out of the catalogue.

John Quinn

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