Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1; Variations for Orchestra; Erwartung

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COMPOSERS: Schoenberg
WORKS: Chamber Symphony No. 1; Variations for Orchestra; Erwartung
PERFORMER: Phyllis Bryn-Julson (soprano)Birmingham Contemporary Music Group; CBSO/Simon Rattle
Only a few years ago there were no recordings of Schoenberg’s great monodrama Erwartung in the catalogue. Now there are five. Could it be that one of the most reviled pieces of all time is about to get popular? Rattle’s version with the CBSO is up against some stiff competition, particularly Anja Silja’s neurasthenically intense performance, with Dohnányi and the Vienna Philharmonic. This new EMI version is the second with Phyllis Bryn-Julson in the title (and only) role. Her first recording was with Boulez, and one feels his tutelary spirit behind this new one. Clarity and sensuous delicacy of sound are its hallmarks. It’s as if Debussy’s ideal of an orchestra ‘without feet’, so wonderfully realised in Rattle’s recording of his Jeux, has here been transplanted to Schoenberg. The beauty of sound isn’t achieved at the expense of rhythmic energy – on the contrary, one hears all kinds of rhythmic detail where normally there’s only an impressionistic wash (eg the beginning of the Orchestral Variations). The impetuous cello theme at the beginning of the Chamber Concerto, which can skitter out of control, is beautifully shaped. Beautiful is not normally a word one applies to Schoenberg’s expressionist works, still less to the notoriously dry works of the Twenties and Thirties. On this superb disc it applies everywhere. Ivan Hewett