Schoenberg Pelleas und Melisande

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Arnold Schoenberg
LABELS: Profil
ALBUM TITLE: Schoenberg Pelleas und Melisande
WORKS: Pelleas und Melisande; Erwartung
PERFORMER: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet (soprano); Cologne WDR Symphony Orchestra/Jukka-Pekka Saraste


The West German Radio Symphony Orchestra has an impressive tradition in 20th century modernism and Jukka-Pekka Saraste is a conductor of distinctive musicality, but this release is a disappointment. Completed in 1903, Schoenberg’s programmatic tone poem Pelleas und Melisande is scored for vast orchestra and unfolds its 40-minute length in an idiom of advanced, post-Wagnerian chromaticism, complete with densely woven leitmotifs. Some of its more delicately scored passages sound ravishing in the spacious acoustic of the Philharmonie, Cologne, but the contrapuntal details of the score’s many climaxes are all too often lost in a mess of resonance. Saraste’s relatively leisurely tempos may be intended to offset this problem, but in loving the score’s hyper-Romantic ebb and flow, he marginally fails to hold its episodic form together.

With Erwartung – Schoenberg’s astonishing expressionist monodrama of 1909 – the problem is the reverse. Where such interpreters as Pierre Boulez and Simon Rattle take almost half an hour over it, one is startled to see that Saraste’s account is timed at just 23:38 minutes. Sure enough, he goes for the hysteria from the start: an approach that suits the accurate, if edgy voice of Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, but which means detail after detail of Schoenberg’s iridescently innovatory scoring is jumbled – at least until the climactic final pages, which are finely handled.

Robert Craft’s account of Pelleas und Melisande with the Philharmonia in a finely balanced Abbey Road recording on Naxos is less indulgent but more strongly shaped overall. His coupling of Erwartung features the experienced Anja Silja and is spacious enough to encompass the score’s hallucinatory beauty as well as its horror.


Bayan Northcott