Schoenberg, Wagner

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COMPOSERS: Schoenberg,Wagner
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Pelleas und Melisande
PERFORMER: Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin/Christian Thielemann
CATALOGUE NO: 469 008-2
Schoenberg’s treatment of Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande could hardly be more different from the elusive fragility of Debussy’s opera. His often frenetic symphonic poem seems to exist at the very cusp of the late-Romantic/atonal divide, with a lushness of harmony and orchestration that makes something more wholesome of the drama. Written at Richard Strauss’s suggestion, it outdoes even that master of the gargantuan, combining both Wagnerian Leitmotivic themes and Liszt’s metamorphic methods to create something that is at once a highly descriptive encapsulation of Maeterlinck’s plot and a rigorously worked-out 45-minute symphony.

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Performances are made or broken by the success by which that duality of supposed opposites is caught. Christian Thielemann gets the balance just right. The narrative thread is there in both the urgency and passion of Schoenberg’s proto-expressionist dramatic thrust, while the considered placing of every motif and phrase emphasises the developmental continuity – something lost in, for example, the pointillist, dissecting approach of Sinopoli (also DG).

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The work has generally been well-served on disc, with Boulez (Erato) surprisingly the most passionate advocate and Karajan’s typically histrionic account (DG) dogged by a recording that makes the thicker parts of Schoenberg’s orchestration sound turgid. There’s also an admirable performance from Barenboim (Sony), though his recording is overly spotlit by the engineers. On balance, though, Thielemann, boasting both sumptuous orchestral playing and transparent sound, has the edge as the most trustworthy interpreter of this wonderfully indulgent work; his disc also has the advantage of a big-boned but warm-hearted Siegfried Idyll. Matthew Rye