Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire, Etc / Craft, Wyn-rogers, Et Al

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SCHOENBERG Herzgewächse. 1 Pierrot lunaire. 2 4 Orchestral Songs. 3 Chamber Symphony No. 1 4 Robert Craft, cond; 1 Eileen Hulse (sop); London SO; 1 Anya Silja (Sprechstimme); 2 Twentieth-Century Classics Ens; 2,4 Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mez); Philharmonia O 3 NAXOS 8.557523 (73:51)

These four recordings were made from 1994 to 1998, when Craft’s Schoenberg series was being recorded by Koch. At least two of them— Herzgewächse and Pierrot lunaire —appeared on Koch CDs. The former is written for “high soprano,” which is an understatement; I don’t have a score, but it seems to probe the entire octave above high C (well above, say, the Queen of the Night), as well as exploiting the normal soprano range. Hulse makes smooth, well-rounded sounds at the top end, but they sound more instrumental than vocal. That effect may be merely the listener’s aural experience: we are not prepared to recognize a voice at such heights.

Silja brings a surprisingly fresh voice to Pierrot lunaire (I saw her Salome at the Vienna Staastoper in 1967). In the spoken/sung conundrum that is Sprechstimme , she tilts toward singing. The Twentieth-Century Classics Ensemble is loaded with stars: for Pierrot : Christopher Oldfather, piano; Michael Parloff, flute/piccolo; Charle Neidlich, clarinet/bass clarinet; Rolf Scholte, violin/viola; and Fred Sherry, cello. The playing is superb, instrument by instrument, but the whole is too smooth, too steady; the slashing wit and the terror of this extraordinary work do not come through. There are places where it’s more appropriate for strings to screech and winds to squawk.

The Four Orchestral Songs are rarities on or off disc; I know them only from Yvonne Minton’s recording with Boulez, and I don’t believe they appeared in Craft’s early “The Music of Arnold Schoenberg” for Columbia. Composed in 1916, these songs are surprisingly harmonious for music lacking a tonal center. The differences between the two recordings are primarily in the accompaniments: Craft’s Philharmonia plays the music in a strict, forthright manner, whereas Boulez’s BBC Symphony is mellifluous and distant, more closely matching the poems of loneliness and memories. My preferences seem to depend on my mood of the moment.

Freed from having to support a vocalist, Craft loosens up in the Chamber Symphony, and his ensemble of stars delivers vital, exhilarating playing. The lush, sweet acoustics of the Recital Hall at the SUNY Purchase Performing Arts Center in Purchase, New York, smooth out Schoenberg’s 15 individual lines, making the ensemble sound more like a conventional orchestra. It’s pleasant to hear but belies the composer’s revolutionary one-instrument-on-a-part scoring. Nevertheless, a great performance.

The downside of this disc is its lack of vocal texts,* so important for Pierrot lunaire and the little-known songs. Naxos’s program notes go on for eight-and-a-half pages, so space is not the problem. One simply must have texts here, as does the Minton/Boulez Four Songs on Sony. Of the many available Pierrot lunaire recordings which offer German/English texts, I recommend Jan DeGaetani on Nonesuch or Lucy Shelton on Bridge, a disc which also includes Hergewächse.

* Music Editor’s note: Texts are available on the Naxos Web site, but in German only; search for catalog no. 8.557523 and click on the Lyrics link.

FANFARE: James H. North

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8557523

  • UPC: 747313252329

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Arnold Schoenberg

  • Conductor: Robert Craft

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: 20th Century Classics Ensemble, London Symphony Orchestra members, Philharmonia Orchestra

  • Performer: Anja Silja, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Eileen Hulse