BERG: Drei Orchesterstücke; SCHÖNBERG: Pelleas un Melisande – Dortmund Philharmonic Orch./Jac van Steen – MD&G

by | Jul 13, 2013 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

ALBAN BERG: Drei Orchesterstücke, Op. 6; ARNOLD SCHÖNBERG: Pelleas un Melisande, Op. 5 – Dortmund Philharmonic Orch./Jac van Steen – MD&G multichannel (and 2+2+2) SACD MDG 901 1807-6, 61:18 [Distr. by E1] (6/17/13) ****:

The music of the “Vienna School” – but especially the music of Berg and Schönberg – has become clearly identifiable; a style all its own. For me, the more I listen, the more I like these works with their twelve tone (though not always serialist) harmonies, their lush orchestrations and a style that, at times, sounds like an extension of Mahler.

These two works on this excellent disc are two of the respective composers’ most idiomatic works and are of the essential repertoire for these composers. Berg wrote his Three Orchestral Pieces in 1913 and later revised and edited for its first performance in 1929. Berg was a student of Schönberg and he was undoubtedly influenced by the sudden and vast violence of World War I. Both men were conscripted by the Austrian military and Berg’s score is filled with a foreboding with extended passages of angst and the occasional violent outburst.

The music of the “Prelude” is mostly quiet but tension filled. The “Reigen” (a ‘round dance’) is written in waltz time but has little celebratory context at all. It is, rather, a parody of dance music; perhaps in criticism to people who cannot – or will not – acknowledge the horrors around them. (Both this style and the entire theme is to be found in Berg’s operatic masterpiece, Wozzeck.) The closing “March” was, at the time, arguably the most complex music ever written with dense bits of phrasing that interfere with each other, equally dense harmonies and the use of a vast violent percussion section including hammer blows. This movement is said to have paid homage to Mahler’s Sixth Symphony but certainly is reflective of a world at war, as well.

Schönberg’s Pelleas und Melisande is an earlier work, even, than the Berg and quite a different matter. The novel by Maurice Maeterlinck was considered a masterpiece of symbolism at the time. The story illustrating a tragic confluence of love and jealousy culminating in loss spoke to what many Europeans felt was declining morals and symbolized fatally flawed choices. Richard Strauss turned Schönberg to the story who turned it into the extended tone poem heard here. The orchestration is some of Schönberg most ornate and there are uses of what Wagner what have considered leitmotif throughout. There are sweeping strings passages that illustrate Melisande’s relationship with her husband and a permutation of these that represents the burgeoning relationship between Pelleas and his to be doomed lover.

The music flows episodically and in fairly distinct parts, four in all, equating structurally to both a symphony, if it were one, and to the key dramatic components of Maeterlinck’s story, culminating with the sad, quiet death of the female protagonist. When first performed, audiences did not know quite what to make of Pelleas und Melisande. It was – for them – hard to follow, difficult to listen to and probably too long. While Schönberg’s style morphed subtly with his Guerrelieder (much better received) and changed dramatically with works such as Pierrot Lunaire, Pelleas remains not only an essential example of the early Schönberg but also a masterpiece of the early twentieth century.

Both of these works are critically important to understanding the strange but beautiful period of post-Wagnerian Europe. The Dortmund Philharmonic plays wonderfully under principal conductor Jac van Steen. This SACD recording is rich and detailed, bringing out all the subtle nuance in these scores. These are two of the finer performances of these works I have heard. Highly recommended!

—Daniel Coombs

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