WORKS: Erwartung; Cabaret Songs
PERFORMER: Jessye Norman (soprano), James Levine (piano)Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/James Levine
CATALOGUE NO: 426 261-2 DDD
Eighty years after it was written, Enuartung remains one of the most elusive and unclassifiable of 20th-century masterpieces, a daunting challenge still, both for performers and listeners.
In an astonishing burst of creative energy at the height of his atonal mastery, Schoenberg produced a monodrama of Freudian allusion and subliminal association in which the dramatic thread — the thoughts of an unnamed woman searching through a forest for the body of her lover — is sustained by an orchestral texture of teasing athematicism and kaleidoscopic colours. As an exemplar of Viennese Expressionism, it remains unrivalled.
Jessye Norman’s performance is technically magnificent, fully in command of the taxing vocal part, and serenely controlling the arching lines. Despite the searing detail with which Levine etches the orchestral textures, however, the effect is all rather too comfortable; the knife-edge of neurosis and musical coherence on which Envartungis balanced seems blunted here. The art conceals the angst too cleverly; the nerve-ends are all too neady tied. In the Cabaret Songs, Levine becomes a vivid piano accompanist, and Norman is on much firmer ground, more idiomatic. The turn of the century settings may lie outside the Schoenberg mainstream but they make an appropriate foil to the overwrought intensity of Erwartung. Andrew Clements