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A desert island disc
on 13 July 2009
This stupendous performance of "Verklärte Nacht" became instantly even more attractive when it was re-released on DG Originals coupled this time with the "Pelleas und Melisande" symphonic poem rather than the "Variations", which remains unapproachable for most music-lovers - including me - whereas I love pre-twelve-tone Schoenberg. They make a much more obvious and natural pairing, too, being written within three years of each other, although the 1899 Opus 4 work so clearly still belongs within the Romantic camp and the 1902/3 Opus 5 marks the advent of a new voice - if not the more challenging Schoenberg of later years - with its emphasis on individual instrumental voices rather than the blanket of chromatic sound which enwraps you in "Verklärte Nacht".
Schoenberg, von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic are all three here at their most alluring; this is later Karajan at his best in a period which also produced such beautiful recordings as his "Madama Butterfly" - by no means all mid-70's Karajan was mannered and self-conscious. The music suits perfectly the silky virtuosity of the orchestra and the sound is of demonstration quality for its age (the merest tape hiss). Karajan brings overwhelming passion and intensity to those thrilling climaxes when the strings in unison sing out their hymn of forgiveness under a starlit winter sky. I know no music like for its sense of soaring ecstasy and coruscating tenderness. I enjoy the "Pelleas" which is very much on the cusp of the sea-change which Schoenberg effected in his style, with one foot in each century, so to speak. I do not pretend to adore it as I do the first work, but it is sweeping, surging, programmatic music well suited to the tragic tale it portrays but a little too fragmented and episodic to my ears, as if Schoenberg is trying to pack too much into limited space.
Bearing in mind that the original Opus 4 was composed for string sextet, I also recommend that anyone who loves this piece should own the wonderful 1950 recording made by the augmented Hollywood String Quartet in clean mono (coupled with a superb Schubert String Quintet).