Schoenberg: Pelleas und Melisande; Variations for Orchestra

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COMPOSERS: Schoenberg
LABELS: Erato
WORKS: Pelleas und Melisande; Variations for Orchestra
PERFORMER: Chicago SO/Pierre Boulez
CATALOGUE NO: 2292-45827-2 DDD
In the past I should automatically have expected Boulez to conduct Schoenberg’s Pelleas brilliantly and the Variations for Orchestra less so, simply because he has always told us how much he despises the serial Schoenberg (indeed his earlier recorded Variations was run of the mill). Today I am much less inclined to believe what Boulez tells us about his own tastes, and this new recording of Schoenberg’s first 12-note orchestral score seems to bear me out.

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The performance is beautifully shaped throughout, with a skilful balance between the constructivist and expressionist elements. Above all there is that marvellous clarity of detail that Boulez has always brought to very complex scores.

He once told me that he regarded it as an advantage for a conductor to be cool towards such music, since being too involved could lead to interpretative confusion. As an argument ad hoc that would be hard to beat. Surely the real truth is that he has matured into overlooking his theoretical, historicist objections to Viennese serialism, and now simply conducts it like everything else, with an eye to its expressive design.

On this same basis he unsurprisingly turns in a masterly account of Pelleas, one of Schoenberg’s most beautiful early works but a fiend to sustain through its single 40-minute movement. Perhaps something of the music’s volatility is sacrificed, but certainly none of its intensity.

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The playing is predictably thrilling. I noticed a few rough edges in Pelleas- but the fact they are noticeable is a tribute to the performances as a whole. Almost wherever the ear falls in this extremely dense music, detail is being handled lovingly and with concern for precision. The recording is good enough to allow such detail to emerge. Balance is consistently reliable. Stephen Walsh