September 18, 2008


Schoenberg: Pelleas und Melisande; Erwartung. Anja Silja, soprano; Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $8.99.

Mozart: Der Schauspieldirektor. Noƫmi Nadelmann and Ofelia Sala, sopranos; Lothar Odinius, tenor; Carsten Sabrowski, bass; Otto Schenk, speaker (theater director). Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. Phoenix Edition. $16.99.

     The voice is the primary attraction but scarcely the only one in both these recordings, which use it in very, very different ways. Schoenberg’s Erwartung (“Expectation”), which dates to 1909, is one of his stranger vocal works, described by the composer as a “monodrama” and consisting of three short scenes followed by one very long one. It is essentially a psychological study of a murderess, described only as the Woman, who has killed her lover in a fit of jealousy but only slowly comes to know what she has done as she wanders through a forest – perhaps one that exists only in her mind – and eventually discovers his body. The work is complex and almost entirely atonal, although Schoenberg does very effectively introduce tonality – taken from one of his own early songs – at the point where the Woman realizes that she is “all alone in my darkness.” Anja Silja sings and emotes throughout with a level of insight and intensity that may not be fully obvious to English speakers – unfortunately, the sung text is not provided. Robert Craft conducts with his usual skill and understanding, whether evoking Schoenberg’s version of nature sounds or focusing the orchestra on the menacing characteristics of themes and intervals associated with the Woman and her self-discovery. This CD, originally released by Koch in 2000 and now part of the Naxos “Robert Craft Collection,” retains its power and intensity throughout. That includes in Pelleas und Melisande, Schoenberg’s 1902 version of a story also told, at the same time, in Debussy’s only opera. Here Schoenberg reaches for the general while Debussy focuses on the particular: the French composer highlights the personal tale of the lovers, which Schoenberg creates a more generalized mood of tragedy. There is no vocal part in the Schoenberg work, but there is a great deal of instrumental coloration and a heightened sense of the funereal. This is a highly polyphonic work, filled with musical layers that imply layers of human suffering. Craft and the Philharmonia fully convey its dark depths.

     There is serious philosophy underpinning Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (“The Impresario”) as well, but this has long been one of Mozart’s most-neglected completed works, because it does not fit easily into either a theatrical mode or a musical one. It is a one-act play with several musical elements, but it is emphatically not an opera. The overture is quite marvelous and fairly often heard, but little else of this 1786 work is well known. The new Phoenix Edition version rates (++++) for German speakers but (+++) for those who only know English, because this is a very text-heavy work – and the absence of a libretto is quite unjustifiable (only the lyrics for the arias are included). This omission is particularly irritating because the text has been substantially altered and updated by Eberhard Streul from the original used by Mozart, which dealt in some detail with issues of art, casting, and the mounting of a theatrical performance. Because those issues were handled in very topical terms, later stagings – starting with one by Goethe in 1797 – changed and updated the spoken sections. This is arguably sensible, at least when the audience understands what is going on. Clearly the audience in this live recording is having a great time with the talk of sponsorship, Kraft Foods, references to Wagner, byplay (partly in English) between actors and conductor, and other elements. But almost none of this will make sense to non-German speakers. The music – whose sequence has been rearranged, with the stage names of the singers changed (two decisions of dubious value) – will, on the other hand, please any listener, from its dueling sopranos arguing over who is the prima donna to the individual arias in which each woman shows off her voice. Sir Neville Marriner conducts the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin with gusto, making the half of the CD that contains music a delight throughout. Enjoyment of the other half depends entirely on one’s language skills.

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