WORKS: Schoenberg: Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique)
PERFORMER: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
CATALOGUE NO: 478 2719
It’s probably fair to say coupling Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique with the Schoenberg Op. 31 Variations is not an idea that would occur to everybody, nor appeal to all. But for a demonstration of the skills of Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, in their first collaboration with Decca, these two orchestral masterpieces serve just fine.
The Schoenberg, placed first, puts everyone through athletic paces, and the results are admirably focused and clear-textured; indeed the recording yields up an unusual amount of detail as the polyphony is picked out with almost microscopic precision. It’s a highly exciting performance, treating the work as a bravura concerto for orchestra, but perhaps a little hard-driven. Barenboim allows little room for lyrical expansion (he even takes the statement of the Theme, surely a prime example of Romantic sentiment in 12-tone guise, quite briskly) or for exploring Schoenberg’s sense of fantasy.
Lyricism could hardly be in short supply in the Tchaikovsky, and Barenboim’s wonderfully flexible shaping of the first movement’s second subject shows how sympathetic and responsive this orchestra can be. His tempo for the 5/4 waltz is perhaps a little on the sedate side, but the third movement march is highly exciting, with impressive rhythmic unanimity and attack, and the finale is sumptuously played (though again, I felt, a little on the cool side).
To recapitulate: these are excellent performances in which both works are played to the highest standards, but there are more profound versions elsewhere (I still recommend Karajan’s 1974 DG account of the Schoenberg; Gergiev on Philips or Mravinsky on DG head a long list for the Tchaikovsky). But if you want this coupling, or to support the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, this is the CD for you. Calum MacDonald