Thursday, September 10, 2015

Schoenberg: Pelleas und Melisande and the Violin Concerto (Markus Stenz with the Gürzenich orchestra and Kolja Blacher)

Arnold Schoenberg, Pelleas und Melisande Op. 5

Arnold Schoenberg, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op. 36*

Gürzenich-Orchester, Köln

Markus Stenz, conductor

Kolja Blacher, violin*

Oehms Classics OC 445 (CD)

Until summer 2014 Markus Stenz was musical director of the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne (he is now with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra). One of the highlights of his tenure in Cologne was a fine Mahler cycle (see here for my review of the Ninth). This disc (issued, like the Mahler cycle, by Oehms Classics) must have been one of his last projects with the Gürzenich Orchestra.

The pairing of Schoenberg’s early Pelleas und Melisande (written in 1902-3) with the much later Violin Concerto (written more than thirty years later in 1934-36) may seem odd. Pelleas is a late-Romantic tone-poem, Wagnerian in its musical idiom and scope – although Schoenberg’s orchestra is large even by Wagner’s standards (with 17 woodwind, 18 brass, and 8 percussion). The Violin Concerto, in contrast, is a 12-note piece. Pelleas is written in D-minor, while the concerto is atonal. A more predictable pairing might be the orchestral version of Verklärte Nacht, written in 1899 and inhabiting a similar, expressionistic musical universe. That is Karajan’s choice in his 1974 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic.

In two of his recordings, though, Pierre Boulez has partnered Pelleas with the Violin Concerto, and there is a logic for the pairing. Among Schoenberg’s later works using the 12-note technique, the Violin Concerto is probably one of the most expressive. There is a definite continuity in expressive idiom between the two pieces, even if the musical languages are very different. And the two works share a similar compositional structure  – both involve highly inventive reworking and developing of short and recognizable thematic motifs, with great contrapuntal sophistication.

As one might expect after a Mahler cycle, Stenz and the Gürzenich sound completely at home in the sprawling single movement Pelleas (a lengthy 38 minutes). They keep the overall structure in view, bringing out the piece’s rich orchestral textures without getting lost in its highways and byways. The Violin Concerto is famously demanding on the soloist. Kolja Blacher rises to the occasion, matching the technical challenges with a sensitive and lyrical touch. The orchestral accompaniment is very fine. With very good sound and informative program notes this disc is highly recommended.