Pelleas und Melisande, Op.5
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 11-14 June 2019 at the Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: September 2020
CD No: CHANDOS CHSA 5198 [SACD]
Duration: 68 minutes
Coincidentally, the last concert I attended before lockdown was a marvellous Schoenberg-dominated programme from the BBCSO and Edward Gardner, and this Chandos release with the Bergen Philharmonic shows of the orchestra and its chief conductor’s commensurate sensitivity and understanding of this Janus-faced late-romantic, cutting-edge modern composer’s music.
Schoenberg’s version of Maeterlinck’s elusive symbolist play was his first – and very assured – score for large orchestra (completed in 1903 with its dramatic premiere in 1905). It came four years after Verklärte Nacht and a mere four years before his stage-work Erwartung, the music of which is detached from functional tonality but not yet organised by his twelve-note method.
This Chandos issue is in a league of its own, remarkable both for clarity and dramatic momentum.
Pelleas und Melisande relates forcefully to Strauss’s brand of heart-on-sleeve surge of passions, which Gardner and his players honour to the letter. Gardner is especially attentive to the detail of Schoenberg’s elaborate tempo changes, and he weaves the various themes into the texture with a natural feeling for the tragedy’s outcome. After many hearings, the overall kaleidoscope of event and emotion reveals something new every time – the burgeoning love theme and Melisande’s death especially – and the outstanding woodwind-playing is consistently subtly characterised and beguilingly volatile, often with the sort of hyper-responsive detail you get in Erwartung. Paul Griffiths’s booklet note makes the story easy to follow, as the three main characters, the loss of the ring, Melisande’s hair, Golaud’s tortured jealousy, the castle and the ever-present forest emerge from the music.
The music-theatre piece Erwartung (Expectation) is a nightmare. A woman in the grip of terror gropes her way through trees to meet her lover. He may be unfaithful to her; she may have murdered him. Marie Pappenheim’s libretto is an out-pouring of suppressed guilt and horrible memories, an externalisation of things usually firmly internalised. It’s a masterpiece of free association, bending the core repertoire of German romanticism – the forest, the moon, night, lonely paths – to hysterical extremes. Schoenberg’s music is up for every nuance of the weird logic of her madness, and Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic negotiate the expressionist, stream-of-consciousness score with outstanding fidelity and skill.
Sara Jakubiak – her Marie in ENO’s Wozzeck a few years ago remains unforgettable – unpacks every twist and turn of mania with fearless intensity while never distorting her voice, the sort of brilliant performance that seems artless.I’ve heard a theory – wildly speculative – that Erwartung’s protagonist is the same woman who figures in Verklärte Nacht, and that the man she may or may not have murdered is the same man who made her pregnant in the earlier work, possibly driven to the deed in part by the rigours of atonality. I was at the 1991 BBCSO performance sung by Dame Gwyneth Jones. She entered wearing the white dress spotted with red flowers as designated on the first page of the score. The Schoenberg was followed by Berg’s Violin Concerto, played by Nigel Kennedy, costumed for the occasion in a black cape and dead-white face make-up as though auditioning for a part in The Munsters. In the interval, I doubt whether I have seen anyone as furious as John Drummond, then Controller of Radio 3.