Schoenberg: Erwartung; Verklärte Nacht

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Schoenberg
LABELS: Koch
WORKS: Erwartung; Verklärte Nacht
PERFORMER: Anja Silja; Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Craft
CATALOGUE NO: 3-7473-2
It’s nearly 40 years since Robert Craft recorded the first ever commercial release of Erwartung, with Helga Pilarczyk, for CBS: a notable scream-fest that nowadays sounds raw and blunt, yet it preserved much of the intensity and excitement – above all, the Angst – of Schoenberg’s inspired psychodrama of the guilty, disordered subconscious. It remained, for many years, almost the record-buyer’s only avenue of approach to this most daunting and extreme of his ‘Expressionist’ works. But superseded it eventually was, as performances and recordings became less rare. Other singers have discovered that the voice part is not Sprechstimme manqué, but must be sung, and beautifully. Greater orchestras than the Washington Opera Society’s have shown that Erwartung is one of the most incredible, iridescent, hallucinatory, bejewelled scores of the 20th century. None of which diminishes by one whit Craft’s pioneering achievement. But it means that his new recording must be judged by entirely different standards.

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Anja Silja has already made a notable Erwartung with Christoph von Dohnányi (for Decca): she sings the role of the somnambulistic murderess with insight and character, without overplaying the edge of hysteria already composed into the vocal line. Craft directs an exciting performance, possibly the most accurate ever in terms of the orchestral score. But there is now strong competition in this piece – from the magisterial Jessye Norman (with James Levine on Philips), the dependable Janis Martin (with Boulez on Sony) – but, for my money, Phyllis Bryn-Julson (with Simon Rattle on EMI), presents the most accurate and insightful approach to the voice part, with the most lustrous and dynamically nuanced orchestral playing. This Koch issue, with its slightly close and cramped acoustic, doesn’t quite come up to that standard. The coupled Verklärte Nacht is a passionate, well-shaped account in rather hard-edged sound. Calum MacDonald