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26 June, 2013

Arnold Schoenberg
Recommended Recordings



"The taste of the public does never affect the real artist, because he is not able to create something else but to what he is pressed by his nature and development. Unfortunately some people believe now and then that he can act according to the public and the momentary success does even pay, but the betrayal takes its toll later by all means."

Gurrelieder
(David Arnold, Werner Klemperer, et al; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, et al; Seiji Ozawa and Eliahu Inbal, conducting)
This is the biggest piece of music that ever gets performed with any regularity. Anyone who avoids Schönberg because his name is synonymous with that nasty, atonal stuff need have no fear. This is a ripely romantic score with big tunes and cinematic orchestration. The story is simple. King Waldemar of Gurre is fooling around with Tove. The queen finds out and has her poisoned. The king curses God, and is condemned to ride on a ghostly hunt throughout all eternity, until the arrival of dawn signals an end to the nightly horror. This performance--which happily has been reissued at bargain price--has been the choice since the day it was released, both for interpretation and for recording. Magnificent doesn't begin to describe it. (review by David Hurwitz)

Moses und Aron
(Michael Devlin, Gabriele Fontana, et al; Netherlands Opera Chorus, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Pierre Boulez)
In every respect, this Netherlands Opera production of Schoenberg's problematic yet most personal stage work outclasses Pierre Boulez's 1974 BBC recording on Sony. The conductor elicits staggeringly precise yet supple and flexible playing from the Concertgebouw, quite different from the stentorian sheen of Sir Georg Solti/Chicago, even though the all-important chorus is heard to better advantage in the latter. As Moses, David Pittman-Jennings's eloquent Sprechtstimme emphasizes the intensity of his character's inner vision rather than his outward frustration. Chris Merritt's Aron, though, is marred by a wobbly high tessitura. While the perfect Moses und Aron still eludes our grasp, DG's superb engineering allows more of the uncompromising score to be heard than ever before. (review by Jed Distler)

Pierrot Lunaire, etc
(Florent Boffard, Sophie Cherrier, et al; Ensemble InterContemporain; Pierre Boulez, conductor)
Arnold Schoenberg claimed he had never set out to be a revolutionary. Yet the song cycle he wrote in 1912 based on proto- expressionist poems and featuring a grotesque harlequin figure, Pierrot Lunaire, still reverberates with its haunting, startling originality. This work introduced the world to a hitherto unthought-of musical landscape; to call it innovative would be an absurd understatement. What's particularly exciting about the undertaking here (Boulez's third recorded take on this music) is how utterly fresh the music sounds, its novelty unblunted and yet strangely beautiful--a far cry from the forbidding Schoenberg of stereotype. Soprano Christine Schäfer negotiates the no-man's land between spoken word and sung pitch--the technique known as Sprechstimme which Schoenberg introduced here--with fascinating nuance. She brings a cabaret-savvy sensibility to bear, along with a gripping sense of pathos, alternately sweet and acrid. Boulez treats the songs as miniatures, offering coloristic and multiperspectival--almost Cubistic--portrayals of Pierrot. For all the score's nebulous atmospherics, Boulez distills a keen, sharp clarity of line and timbre. Also included is the extraordinary song "Herzgewächse" (scored for harmonium, celesta, and harp), in which Schäfer matches her voice like a "crystal sigh" to the instrumentation. The album is filled out with Schoenberg's setting, during his exile from the Nazi horror, of Byron's bitterly ironic "Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte" for a baritone reciter. (review by Thomas May)

The Piano Music
(Maurizio Pollini)
The first great pianist to record all of Schoenberg's piano music was Glenn Gould, and if you grew up with Gould's interpretations, then you're in for a shock. In the first place, Pollini actually plays what Schoenberg wrote--Gould freely altered the text in ways that would have driven the composer insane. And then there's the humming--yes, believe it or not, Gould did manage to sing along as he played. Pollini's quieter, less vocal approach conveys much more of what Schoenberg actually wrote, with no sacrifice of expressiveness. And although most of the pieces on this disc are quite short, they are nonetheless important. It was in his piano works that Schoenberg worked out his theories of free atonality and 12-tone composition. So for anyone interested in these critical musical developments, this disc is essential listening. (review by David Hurwitz)

Transfigured Night, etc
(Faye Robinson; Stockholm Chamber Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor)
Transfigured Night was originally composed for string sextet, but it has since become popular in the composer's arrangement for full string orchestra. Since the Second String Quartet was also arranged by the composer in a similar fashion, it's amazing that no one has had the idea to couple the two works together before now. Salonen is, along with Pierre Boulez, the most persuasive advocate of contemporary music on the podium today. He secures playing of really amazing precision and confidence from his string orchestra, and he paces each work perfectly. This is Schoenberg for people who think they don't like Schoenberg. (review by David Hurwitz)

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