Schoenberg: Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene

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COMPOSERS: Schoenberg
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Schoenberg: Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, Op. 34; Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9b; Brahms (arr. schoenberg): Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor
PERFORMER: Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: EMI 4578152

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Schoenberg regarded his 1937 orchestration of Brahms’s First Piano Quartet as authentically Brahmsian – adding, as a little caveat, that this is how Brahms would have done the job, ‘if he’d lived today’. For the first two movements, at least, Schoenberg’s claim remains plausible. But when the military percussion marches into the Andante, doubts creep in, too. Moreover, the signature on the clattering xylophone and high-wheeling klezmer clarinet in the finale is definitely Arnold Schoenberg. In the end, that doesn’t matter. If this isn’t ‘Brahms’s Fifth’, it is – especially here – luxuriously colourful and ultimately great fun.

But for all his evident devotion, even Rattle can’t quite purge the feeling that something crucial to Brahms’s original is lost: a bit like transferring an intimate poetry recital from a Viennese drawing room to the Hollywood Bowl.
In the case of the First Chamber Symphony, the arranger is the composer himself, and here, with full orchestra, the gain-loss balance is much more even. Lost is the desperate driven urgency of the original, particularly of the five solo strings struggling to speak above ten wind instruments; gained is a sense of kinship with Mahler – especially the Mahler of the Ninth and Tenth symphonies.

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Between these comes the one-off Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, which sounds less nightmarish, and a lot more beautiful than in any previous version. In general, Rattle’s Schoenberg is more the voluptuous late Romantic than the bogeyman of popular legend. That said, I do slightly miss the bogeyman. Stephen Johnson