SCHOENBERG Moses und Aron
Moses und Aron has had a fair number of productions since its posthumous premiere 40 years ago, but it has never become a repertory opera. Partly, of course, because of its extreme demands, and it is no bad thing that it remains a piece that no company can take on lightly. But it is also respected rather than loved, with the reputation of being a tough assignment for all concerned. One of the essays in the booklet accompanying this new recording calls it a didactic opera. Precisely; or to phrase it more off-puttingly still, an operatic sermon.
Pierre Boulez, however, is a conductor in whom didacticism is close to a passion, and he is obviously passionate about this opera (this is his second recording of the piece). We take it for granted that in any work to which he feels close every detail will be both accurate and audible. But for Schoenberg Moses und Aron was a warning as well as a homily, and as much a confession of faith as either (a double confession: in the religion to which he had returned and in the power of his compositional method to encompass epic drama). Boulez, often himself a Moses preaching against anti-modern backsliding, is at one with Schoenberg here. Some such reason, surely, has led to this being not only a performance of immaculate clarity, but of intense and eloquent beauty and powerful drama too.
The recording was made during a run of stage performances, but in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, not in the theatre. In the beautiful acoustic of their own hall, the orchestra play with ample richness as well as precision, and the at times complex textures benefit enormously from a perceptible space around them. The choral singing matches the orchestral playing in quality: beautiful in tone, eloquently urgent, vividly precise in the difficult spoken passages. The soloists are all admirable, with no weak links. Merritt in particular seems to have all that the hugely taxing role of Aron demands: a fine control of long line, intelligently expressive use of words, where necessary the dangerous demagogue’s glamour. Pittman-Jennings is a properly prophetic Moses, grand of voice; among the others Fontana, Hall and Polgar stand out for pungent character as well as vocal quality. But the set is Boulez’s achievement above all: he is as good at dramatic excitement (the transformations of Moses’s staff) as at soberly or poignantly expressive melody (the memorably beautiful closing scene), and the long, orgiastic worship of the Golden Calf has all that one hopes for from it: power, menace, hysteria, the grotesque, but also a queerly impressive sensuous lyricism which is disturbingly alluring. This, I am convinced, is one of Boulez’s finest achievements, a compelling argument for Moses und Aron as an anything but coldly didactic opera.'