In the late Seventies Columbia Records already had a Mister Modern in the person of Robert Craft, who could be responsible for the Second Viennese School and its highly unpopular music, so it was noble of them to recognize that Pierre Boulez was a far more capable conductor and to give Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern a second chance. The result, mostly recorded in London, was a classic of the gramophone, as they say. This CD is a typical installment in the Schoenberg series, drawing on fine musicians, even finer singers, and Boulez at his freshest and most appealing. Another advantage of this program is that it mixes early, middle, and late Schoenberg, affording a fascinating entry point into the composer's immensely varied output.
The featured and most unusual work is Jacob's Ladder (Jakobsleiter), a 45+ min. oratorio that takes off from the story in Genesis about Jacob wrestling with the angel Gabriel. familiarity with the Bible does a listener little good, however, since Jacob doesn't appear in Schoenberg's text, written about himself, which is highly philosophical. I essence we have the angel Gabriel pondering the existential possibilities of belief in a modern, anguished world. There is no doubt that the nearly unreadable poem was highly personal to the composer, who published it in 1917 before finishing the music. Jakobsleiter had an unfortunate future ahead of it, however. Schoenberg was called up briefly for army service in the fall of 1917, and he couldn't pick up the thread of the work, abandoning it until 1921.
Even then, he completed only the short score by 1944, and at his death in 1951, only the first hundred measures or so were orchestrated. The premiere took place in 1961 under Kubelik. How amazing, then, to find that this is one of Schoenberg's most captivating and accessible dramatic works, its impact as mysterious and biblical as the opera Moses und Aron. There are stretches of choral writing couched in almost conventional harmony, and even though the score is based on a tone-row, any listener with a will to try can become engrossed in Gabriel's long monologues and his interaction with various kinds of believers, skeptics, and atheists. The angel is sung superbly by bass-baritone Siegmund Nimsgern (a famous Alberich and Telramund on the Wagner side), supported by such London notables Ian Partridge, John Shirley-quirk, and Anthony Rolfe-Johnson -- I was rather amazed at how adept these singers were in atonal music. There's a wordless vocalise for The Soul at the end, which is both lovely and treacherously high-flying. Mady Mesple is stretched to the limit but gives the part a courageous try.
The early work on the program is the Chamber Symphony no. 1, Op. 9. The low opus number shouldn't fool newcomers. Schoenberg had reinvented the symphony, jettisoning anything as simple as melody supported by accompaniment. Instead we get a crystallized concentration of elements in which every note is placed with rigor. As a listen, the work is challenging and abstruse, despite the presence of relatively easy harmonies here and there. The best way to enter is through the emotional lushness of its late-Romantic idiom. There are any number of good recordings of the First Chamber Sym., but Boulez's from 1980 is exceptionally vital, clear and well recorded.
Finally comes the intensely expressionistic Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, debuted in 1930, which is essentially, despite its cumbersome title, move music to be played for a silent film. No specific film ever emerged; Schoenberg was told simply to write a score that evoked fear and terror -- in other words, music that might be played to go with F. W. Murnau's classic vampire film, Nosferatu. No theater orchestra, before of since, could have executed what Schoenberg produced, however, and only latterly has it appeared in concert, thanks to Simon Rattle, who toured with it when the Berlin Phil. came to America several seasons ago, each concert combining Brahms and Schoenberg in a fascinating merger. Dense as the music is, there's great atmosphere to it, and if you close your eyes and run some gory movie scenes in your head, you'll have no trouble getting absorbed.