SCHONBERG: Moses and Aaron – Franz Grundheber (Moses)/ Andreas Conrad (Aron)/ Johanna Winkel & Katharina Persicke, sop./ Elvira Bill, Nora Petrochenko, altos/ Jean-noel Briend, Jason Bridges, tenors/ Andreas Wolf, bari./ Friedemann Rohlig, bass/ Europa Choral Akademie/ SWR Sym. Orch. Baden-Baden and Freiburg/ Sylvain Cambreling – Hanssler Classic

SCHONBERG: Moses and Aaron (complete opera) – Franz Grundheber (Moses)/ Andreas Conrad (Aron)/ Johanna Winkel, Katharina Persicke, sopranos/ Elvira Bill, Nora Petrochenko, altos/ Jean-noel Briend, Jason Bridges, tenors/ Andreas Wolf, baritone/ Friedemann Rohlig, bass/ Europa Choral Akademie/ SWR Sym. Orch.  Baden-Baden and Freiburg/ Sylvain Cambreling – Hanssler Classic multichannel SACD 93.314 (2 discs), 1:41:10 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Surprisingly, there are about seven recordings of this opera currently available. Of them all, the Georg Solti production with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus has remained firmly etched in the critical mind for most people, aged though the set has become. And there are several interesting if lightly perverse video productions as well, and it does help to see as well as hear Schoenberg’s conception.

Or at least that is what I used to think. This issue under review is the first time the work has appeared in any sort of high-end format (Super Audio in this case—no Blu-ray yet), and one can only rejoice that the piece has been given such a fine cast and performance.

Unlike many of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone pieces, this one drags the listener along kicking and screaming no matter what he or she happens to think of that once-ascending and now-retreating format. His intensity is unsurpassed and his dramatic instincts are unflagging—one is hard pressed to think of any composer who so weds the story with the music in any opera of the last century. Not that this is an easy ride—no one is going to go away humming the tunes in the car on the way to work—but as an “in the moment” experience, as true musical theater, it is truly a gripping event.

The words above that mention “complete opera” must be taken with a grain of salt as the opera is in fact not complete, but we do have everything the composer wrote present.  This is one of those works where the composer struggled to find a satisfactory conclusion for years—in this case over 20. The work, taken by the composer from the Book of Exodus (and the first two acts finished in a three year period), was supposed to be in three acts, but no music was ever composed for the third act, though the text was largely set in place. Schoenberg could not find a way to satisfactorily conclude the piece, which ends after the decent of Moses from the mountain and his confrontation with Aron over the idolatry in the Israeli camp, and so let the work stand. Many today believe that Moses und Aron really is complete in its two-act form, though pianist and composer Zoltán Kocsis completed the last act, with Schoenberg’s heirs’ permission, in 2010—whether this catches on or not remains to be seen, as has been indicated, there is no original music by Schoenberg.

It’s hard to dismiss the Solti recording even now, but the sound on this recording is vastly superior to anything ever done before, and the cast, while again difficult to supplant the Solti, for the most part is every bit as good. Schoenberg’s music does not pose the problems it once did to generations now used to the idiom, issues that were quite present even in 1965 when Solti premiered the work. If I had to choose, this would be the one I keep because of the terrific and vivid sound, with its equally vivid emotionality. If you don’t know it, be bold and give it a chance—it’s quite enthralling.

—Steven Ritter

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