SCHOENBERG: Pelleas und Melisande; Variations for Orch. – Israel Philharmonic Orch./ Zubin Mehta – Helicon

SCHOENBERG: Pelleas und Melisande, Op. 5; Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 – Israel Philharmonic Orch./ Zubin Mehta – Helicon 02-9665, 62:57 (1/13/15) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****: 

Like Faure, Debussy, and Sibelius, Arnold Schoenberg found the Maurice Maeterlinck symbolist drama attractive; but unlike his fellow creative artists, Schoenberg composed a symphonic poem in 1903 – much in the manner of Richard Strauss – with no relation to any stage production. Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande evolves as a single movement, employing a large, post-Wagnerian orchestra that embraces daring harmonies and innovative sounds, like trombone glissandos. Alban Berg felt he could acclimate the rather hostile, bewildered first audiences of the work by commenting on its classical dependence on four distinguishable sections, seamlessly melded into one extended “symphony.” Berg pointed out Schoenberg’s reliance on clear leitmotifs that identify Maeterlinck’s principals in this love drama: Golaud, Pelleas, Melisande, and Arkel. The music, however, continues to defy popular reception, and Schoenberg railed that his work needed to be heard, not read about, to receive its proper judgment.

Zubin Mehta and the IPO deliver from Tel Aviv (13 July 1988) a passionately driven account of this often voluptuous score, whose own love music reveals a conscious attempt by Schoenberg in his haunted Adagio section to rival Wagner’s fusion of love and death in Tristan. Certain key intervals clearly echo the Act II Liebesnacht from Tristan, while the orchestral peaks and valleys of the remaining, emotionally meandering sections receive a frenzied delirium that blurs our notions of reason and romance. The eternal love-triangle plays itself out as Golaud insists the dying Melisande reveal “the truth” of any forbidden love. But Melisande passes away, and the dark resignation of the last pages leaves us with an ambiguous moral stance, beguiled by passion, as Denis de Rougemont asserts in his Love in the Western World.

So far as variation form is concerned, Schoenberg always celebrated the example of Johannes Brahms as his chosen master of the idiom. By the time Schoenberg conceived his Op. 31 Variations in 1928, he had achieved the “emancipation of the dissonance,” as he claimed the terms “consonance” and “dissonance” could only function dialectically toward a dodecaphonic fusion that guaranteed the equality of all notes and intervals. The twelve-tone row in Schoenberg’s music does not function as a theme or mode (as Berg tends to use it), “but as a set of materials, a complex of relationships, offering enormous possibilities to the ordered imagination that can master them.” The Variations represent the first serial work that employs a full orchestra. The first performance went to Wilhelm Furtwaengler. Mehta embraces the revolutionary syntax that discards the old aesthetics of “classicism” and establishes a new expression “freed from all theories.” The result can become quite disarming, lyrical, nostalgic, ironic, even sentimental. As a color piece, the Variations rest as a virtuoso test of ensemble, Schoenberg’s having admonished, “the individual parts are very difficult, and so the quality of the performance depends upon the musicianship of the players.” Suffice it to say, the colossal ambition of the composer finds an equally committed ensemble in those who realize (Tel Aviv, 1975) his grandiose, often colossal sound structure.  But this music does continue to test us, and its ninety years of existence have not softened its impact upon our aesthetic complacency.

—Gary Lemco

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