MICHAEL GIELEN EDITION, Vol. 8 / SCHOENBERG: Pelleas und Melisande (2 vers).1 & 2 Chamber Symphony No. 1.1 A Survivor of Warsaw.1 Modern Psalm1 / Günter Reich, speaker / Verklärte Nacht.2 Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene.2 Gurre-Lieder 2 / Robert Dean Smith, ten (Waldemar); Melanie Diener, sop (Tove); Yvonne Naef, mezzo (Waldtaube); Gerhard Siegel, ten (Klaus-Narr); Ralf Lukas, bar (Bauer); Andreas Schmidt, speaker / Die glückliche Hand2 / John Bröcheler, bar; Rundfunkchor Berlin; MDR Rundfunkchor Leipzig; Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks / 5 Orchestral Pieces.2 String Quartet No. 2, arr. for soprano & string orch.1 / Slavka Taskova, sop / Variations for Orchestra.2 Violin Concerto2 / Wolfgang Marschner, vln / Die Jakobsleiter2 / John Bröcheler, bar (Gabriel); Glen Winslade, ten (Ein Bereufner); Guy Renard, ten (Ein Aufrührerischer); Hanno Müller-Brachmann, bar (Ein Ringender); James Johnson, bar (Der Auserwählte); Thomas Harper, ten (Der Mönch); Laura Aiken, sop (Der Sterbende/Die Seele); Rundfunkchor Berlin / Chamber Symphony No. 2.2 Kol Nidre2 / James Johnson, speaker; Rundfunkchor Berlin / Piano Concerto / Claude Helffer, pno / Theme and Variations.2 Konzert für Streichquartett und Orchestra, after Handel.2 Chamber Symphony No. 1 (arr. Webern for quintet) / Rudolf Kolisch, vln; Severino Gazzeloni, fl; Willy Tautenhahn, cl; Konrad Lechner, cel; Michael Gielen, pno / BACH: Prelude and Fugue for Organ in Eb, BWV 552 (orch. Schoenberg).2 Komm, Gott Schöpfer heil’ger geist (orch. Schoenberg).2 Schmücke dich, o liebe seele (orch. Schoenberg).2 Fuga (Ricerata) No. 2 from “A Musical Offering”(orch. Webern)2 / J. STRAUSS Jr: Kaiserwalzer (orch. Schoenberg)2 / BERG: 7 Early Songs2 / Diener, sop / 3 Pieces for Orchestra.2 Chamber Concerto for Piano, Violin & 13 Wind Instruments3 / Saschko Gawriloff, vln; Christoph Eschenbach, pno / Der Wein: Concert Aria for Soprano & Orchestra2 / Diener, sop / Symphonic Pieces from “Lulu” 2 / Christine Schäfer, sop / Violin Concerto3 / Christian Ferras, vln / WEBERN: Im Sommerwind.2 Passacaglia.2 / SCHUBERT: Incidental Music from “Rosamunde” intermixed with WEBERN: 6 Pieces for Orchestra2 / WEBERN: 10 Pieces for Orchestra.3 5 Pieces for Orchestra, Op. Posth.3 5 Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10.3 Concerto for 9 Instruments.2 Das Augenlicht3 / SWR Vokalensemble / Cantata No. 12 / Christiane Oelze, sop / Variations for Orchestra2 / 1Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR; 2SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg; 3Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt; Michael Gielen, cond / SWR Music SWR19063CD
This, the first portion of the Michael Gielen Edition to be released posthumously, focuses on the music of the three prominent members of the “New Viennese School of the early 20th century, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Webern was the strictest of those to apply the 12-tone or dodecaphonic style of writing to each of his compositions, Berg the least strict, and Schoenberg, the developer of this system, somewhere in between.
For me, however, not all of this album is indispensable, though most of it is. We are faced, for instance, right at the outset with two complete performances of Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, the first with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR from a 1973 radio broadcast and the second a live performance with his longtime orchestra, the SWR Symphony of Baden-Baden and Freiburg, from 1996. We are told in the liner notes that the first-named was included because it was the more intense performance, and this is true. So why include the second? Although quite good, there are so many other recordings of this work similar to this 1996 broadcast that it becomes superfluous. The only real reason for including it, in my view, is the fact that the later digital sonics bring out a bit more detail and certainly greater sonic amplitude—but this is still not a big reason for including both.
And, much as I like them, in a sense the reissue here of famous Gielen-Schoenberg recordings that I already had in my collection—Jacob’s Ladder, Gurre-lieder, the 1909 Five Orchestral Pieces, the Piano Concerto and one of his favorite program pieces, the juxtaposition of five items from Schubert’s Rosamunde with Webern’s 6 Pieces for Orchestra—made it much less of an adventure for me than most of the previous releases, but if you don’t have or haven’t heard these excellent recordings, you’re certainly in for a treat.
Gielen’s great gift as a conductor was to make even the thorniest and most forbidding 12-tone music sound lyrical, flowing and emotional, much like his great predecessors Dmitri Mitropoulos and René Leibowitz but completely unlike the colder, stricter performances of Pierre Boulez. Robert Craft and Esa-Pekka Salonen lie somewhere in-between: they impart emotion and energy to modern music but do not make them lyrical or effusive. The only other performance I’ve ever heard of the Chamber Symphony No. 1 as lyrical as this was an old recording on Columbia by the Marlboro Festival Orchestra from way back in the 1960s, and who else could have imparted even a shred of lyricism to the angst-ridden A Survivor From Warsaw while still retaining the cutting edge of the music? As Gielen put it in his memoirs, “I have always thought – and still do – that the function of art and music is to present people with the conflicts of their times and their innermost being in a paradigmatic manner – and that this is the only truth of art. Especially because Schoenberg did just this in such an overwhelming way, he is for me the greatest composer of the twentieth century. In my old age I have realized that there is something else that is no less important: music shows us, above all else, the utopian moments we yearn for!”
It should also be noted that these are the first-ever releases of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2, A Survivor from Warsaw, Modern Psalm, both performances of Pelleas und Melisande, Verklärte Nacht, 5 Orchestral Pieces. Variations for Orchestra, String Quartet No. 2 and Theme and Variations, Berg’s 7 Early Songs, Chamber Concerto and Violin Concerto, and Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments, Variations for Orchestra and his orchestration of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 as well as the first CD issue of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, so in that sense this set is important for Gielen collectors. Perhaps SWR Music thinks you should just chuck out your current copies of Gurre-lieder, Jakob’s Ladder and the other pieces. I would simply have omitted them from this release.
As for Verklärte Nacht, it is a very fine piece but not a great one. At this early stage of his career (1899), Schoenberg, like Richard Strauss, was very much under the spell of Wagner, and this meant as much the good as the bad, which was an over-garrulous streak. Were Verklärte Nacht half as long, it would be twice as good, but even as it is the music, Schoenberg’s most Romantic score yet one he never renounced (he orchestrated the string sextet version in 1917 and revised it yet again in 1943), is moving and in some ways indescribably beautiful. As for Accompaniment for a Cinematographic Scene, written in 1929-30, the title is a bit tongue in cheek. Schoenberg himself titled it Music NOT for a Film, but since it was commissioned by the music publisher Heinrichshofen which provided music for silent films, they retitled it. It’s a fast, edgy little tone poem that would surely have scared most of the audiences out of whatever movie house it might have been played in. Gielen really digs into it.
By the way, I am not particularly pleased by annotator Paul Fiebig’s constantly quoting Theodor Adorno in the booklet. Adorno was an arrogant little snob whose long list of hatreds included jazz (which he compared to the impotent whining of emasculated men), actors (who he said were too stupid to really understand or appreciate the lines they spoke in great plays), Arturo Toscanini (who he tied in with American Jingoism, belittling his musical achievements) and popular films (which he considered trash), yet had nothing to suggest as to how to help people appreciate the arts he admired—all of which, naturally, were German and usually remote from most people’s sensibilities. Late in life, teaching in California, he received his just desserts when a group of feminists appeared topless in his classroom, frightening him half to death. He died of a well-deserved heart attack less than a year later.
Back to our regularly scheduled review. The Gurre-lieder is a superb, almost magical-sounding performance, as well it should be. Like Leibowitz and Craft before him, Gielen had the wisdom to use a lyric tenor, Robert Dean Smith, rather than a stentorian one to sing Waldemar, and an excellent soprano to sing Tove. Where he differed from most of his predecessors was in his choice of Yvonne Naef, a rich-toned contralto whose voice extends up to a high B, to sing the Wood-Dove in place of the usual light mezzo. Although Swiss, Naef’s voice has a characteristic French vibrato, even and regular but noticeable, which at first put me off a bit, but as she progressed through her long solo I began to appreciate her great musicality, diction and powers of expression. Like all other conductors, Gielen used a rough-sounding baritone for the Farmer (Bauer), but this is a “character” part and certainly not a fatal flaw. Interestingly Gerhard Siegel, the tenor who sang Klaus-Narr, had a better than usual voice for the part, and Andreas Schmidt made a good narrator though he occasionally breaks out into song. Gielen’s tempi are about the same as Craft’s in his later recording for Naxos, sometimes a bit quicker, sometimes a bit slower, but the effect is, as I mentioned earlier, consistently more lyrical, not too dissimilar from Leopold Stokowski’s groundbreaking 1932 recording. Soprano Melanie Diener’s voice is sweeter in tone than those of Jeanette Vreeland (Stokowski), Ethel Semser (Leibowitz) and Eva-Maria Bundschuh (Herbert Kegel), and much steadier than Sharon Sweet (Abbado) or Soile Iskoski (Salonen). For me, this is a nearly perfect performance of this long and difficult score, lacking neither elegance nor drama. In addition, Gielen brought out details not normally heard in most recordings of the work. (Other critcs prefer Ozawa, but his Waldemar is the ugly-sounding James McCracken, or Sinopoli, surely the most erratic and psychotic conductor who ever lived. No thanks.)
Gielen’s Die glückliche Hand is, as I mentioned earlier, a famous Gielen recording that is also quite excellent, but for those who haven’t heard them his performance of the 5 Orchestral Pieces is just as intense and detailed. The one I have is with the Netherlands Philharmonic; the one here, issued for the first time, is with his trusty SWR Symphony of Baden-Baden and Freiburg. Considering that this set is supposed to be an overview of his career, I’m a bit surprised that SWR Music didn’t release at least a few of his performances with other orchestras, most notably the Cincinnati Symphony, but since they’re a Eurocentric label they stuck with mostly German recordings and broadcasts. Gielen’s performance of the orchestrated version of the String Quartet No. 2 is more spacious, though still intense, and also more clearly detailed than the famous mid-1940s performance by Dmitri Mirtopoulos with the NBC Symphony (the only work programmed by a guest conductor that Toscanini tried to stop, as he detested Schoenberg’s music). And happily, soprano Slavka Taskova has a firm, attractive voice and excellent diction.
This performance of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto, a 1957 mono recording with violinist Wolfgang Marschner and the Baden-Baden and Freiburg orchestra in an earlier incarnation originally issued on a Vox LP, is good but limited in sound. I prefer Israel Baker’s recording with Robert craft in stereo.
This 1973 performance of the Piano Concerto, in decent stereo, has more sonic depth and clarity than Gielen’s mono recording for Vox with Alfred Brendel, so for that reason it is a valuable item, although for me hearing Brendel, who has wasted most of his career playing old-timey stuff (Mozart-Schubert-Beethoven), the earlier performance is quite interesting.
As for the Schoenberg transcriptions of Bach, for me they are interesting because of the unusual orchestral colors and textures he used but not pieces I’d like to hear twice. They’re really no more interesting than Stokowski’s or Henry Wood’s orchestrations of Bach from the 1930s or Felix Weingartner’s infamous orchestration of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata. Why bother? Aren’t the original pieces good enough for you? The same goes for his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra which is really just an arrangement of Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 7, but believe it or not, his arrangement of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Kaiser Waltz is actually quite charming, in part because of the (again) unusual scoring that he used.
After Schoenberg, who clearly gets the lion’s share of this album (8 of the 12 CDs), we switch over to Alban Berg. Although I really liked the way Gielen brought out the orchestral textures in the Seven Early Songs, Melanie Diener’s singing—although very solid and professional—cannot hold a candle to Jessye Norman. What is exceptional, however, is his taut, dramatic performance of the 3 Pieces for Orchestra. The sonics here are also exceptional, as in the case of Gurre-lieder, allowing a tremendous amount of detail to be heard, and the same may be said for the Chamber Concerto for Piano, Violin and 13 Wind Instruments although, to me, the latter is a bit too abstract and not varied enough in thematic material or harmony to make much sense.
I had never heard Berg’s concert aria Der Wein before; it’s a slow, dark, moody piece whose orchestra incongruously includes an alto saxophone for color. Written a few years after Wozzeck (1929), the vocal line is similar to that of Marie’s aria in the opera: lyrical, graciously written for the voice, but resolutely modern in tonality. Here, Diener sings splendidly with a strong dramatic inflection, and again Gielen’s conducting is superb. Berg’s music is much more varied here than in the Chamber Concerto, with inner voices that are constantly in motion, creating a dark atonal web of sound around the soloist.
The Lulu Suite is given a very lyrical reading, similar to the way Jeffrey Tate conducts the complete opera except with more atmosphere, and the soloist here is the extraordinary Christine Schäfer. Yet I feel a little frustrated when listening to this suite, as it only captures part of the opera’s spirit. The famous Violin Concerto is given an absolutely rhapsodic reading, with soloist Christian Ferris soaring sweetly above the orchestra like an atonal Fritz Kreisler. This is an invaluable recording, and I’m glad the SWR Music included it.
After Berg, Webern, whose music fills the last two CDs of this set. We start with his early, late-Romantic Im Sommerwind, yet even this early on we can hear the star differences between him and early Schoenberg. The melodic lines are more tuneful than Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht or Pelleas und Melisande, yet the musical construction is already terse and condensed. Even at age 21, Webern was not a composer given to overstatement or garrulousness; the music reminds one of Strauss, but only Strauss at his most condensed, i.e. of Don Quixote. There are some repetitions of thematic material, but not many and none too long that they overstay their welcome. Gielen’s performance is absolutely rhapsodic, making the big string section melody at the 5:35 mark really soar. Im Sommerwind points to an entirely different future for the young Webern in one respect: the music has emotion in it. This was the one thing he drained from his mature style, which one can hear in his first numbered opus, the Passacaglia of 1908 when he was 25 years old. Although still in the late Romantic mold, the music is much more objective in feeling and already the underlying harmonies are shifting under our feet as if rooted in quicksand—and the music, though powerful in places, sounds more stoic and less touching.
Following this, we hear one of Gielen’s specialties, his juxtaposition of five pieces from Schubert’s Rosamunde with Webern’s 6 Pieces for Orchestra. When he performed this with the Cincinnati Symphony, the audience became annoyed and restless. They loved the Schubert but neither understood nor appreciated a note of the Webern. Gielen, quoted in the booklet, said that “My ideal program is to move a piece quite close to another one so that the first one sheds its light onto the second and vice-versa and both works appear like something new.” Regarding this particular montage, he said it “does not destroy the works but interferes with the continuity of time that separates them and therefore presents them separately…every facet of sound you can find in Schubert’s oeuvre is familiar to Webern.” But the 6 Pieces remain uncomfortable music no matter what the context. They were booed at their premiere in 1913 and met with stony silence when I heard Pierre Boulez conduct them with the New York Philharmonic in 1974. Gielen’s montage received a smattering of applause from the old guard of Cincinnati Symphony concertgoers in the early 1980s. It still sounds a bit strange, but in its own way it’s a brilliant idea not because Schubert makes you appreciate Webern better but because Webern makes you “hear” the Schubert pieces in a different way. Part of this is also due to Gielen’s sonorities, which are much leaner than one normally hears in this music, with an almost X-ray clarity brought to the score. Listening in the concert hall, just in my early 30s, I found it a bit disconcerting. The notes were the same, but this surely wasn’t the echt-Romantic Schubert I had been brought up on. But by contrast with Boulez’ cold, objective reading, Gielen brought a bit of color and warmth to Webern, and this, too, was something completely foreign to my experience. The really jarring thing about this montage is not, however, the completely different methods of composition so much as it is the juxtaposition of happy, jolly music with music that is stark and even a bit scary (particularly the second half of Webern’s “Marcia funèbre”). It’s like having Kindly Papa Gepetto tell you a bedtime story about people being beheaded as they skip and dance through the woods.
Gielen also did what he could with the two sets of 5 Pieces for Orchestra from 1913, but by this time Webern had become even more terse, almost stringent in what notes he would allow into his scores, thus the effect is more cerebral than enjoyable, but in the Concerto for 9 Instruments he presents us with a fine performance that even has a touch of humor about it. I particularly liked the warmth of the anonymous French horn player in this. He also brought some much-needed warmth to Webern’s brief cantata for chorus, Das Augenlicht, the performance of which is helped immeasurably by Christiane Oelze, the woman with the voice of crystal. I was fascinated by the delicate filigree that Gielen wove through the Variations for Orchestra and the Chamber Symphony No. 1, the latter a mono radio broadcast on which Gielen wasn’t even conducting, but just playing the piano. Needless to say, although the performance is fine the sonics are a bit rough.
Overall, then, a splendid set showing Gielen in fascinating works from the New Vienna School. If you lack the recordings I already have, you will surely find this collection indispensable if you have a proclivity towards the 12-tone style. If not, just look for the separate issues of Webern’s and Schoenberg’s earlier, more tonal works, and you’ll be happy that way.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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