Schoenberg Piano Concerto; Chamber Symphonies
“After half a century, Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto has found its place in the repertoire.” If Brendel’s contention is true (what is the yardstick?) it would be largely thanks to his efforts; for few pianists have taken on this schizophrenic masterpiece without grateful recourse to his still fine-sounding 1958 recording with Kubelik or to his Vox/Turnabout LP (4/58, with atrocious sound quality and never reissued).
Like the Vox performance, the new disc is with Gielen and the South West German RSO, and the partnership on the Philips issue feels confident, the interpretation thoroughly tried and tested. Repertoire piece or no, Brendel plays the music as though it is just that. He senses the direction of the argument and voices the textures more precisely than the richer-toned but expressively rather fulsome Emanuel Ax; he phrases more naturally than Pollini; he finds more variety in characterization than the fanatically single-minded Gould. Perhaps the Baden-Baden orchestra have to yield to Kubelik’s Bavarians for mellifluous tone quality, but Gielen has all sorts of new subtleties to offer, some of them, like the Bartokian pizzicatos at bar 232 (track 3, 1'36''), not actually in the score.
I said the piece is schizophrenic. But the term is inadequate. What I mean is that its lyrical and dance-like impulses are in constant opposition to its rebarbative contrapuntal manoeuvrings, yet without any sense of irony or self-awareness. The impression is of a man wilfully ignoring his own internal conflicts and acting as though it is the rest of the world which is unbalanced – maddening in a way, yet, thanks to Schoenberg’s talent and will-power, compelling. This new recording is the fullest realization of the score to date, I would say, by a small margin from Brendel’s performance with Kubelik.
The two Chamber Symphonies are potentially desirable as a coupling, but in the event they are less so than the Violin Concerto on the Kubelik disc. In this repertoire the difference between excellently judged musicianship and something with real communicative verve is all the difference in the world. To my mind Gielen’s accounts of the symphonies fall on the wrong side of the divide, just as clearly as the Piano Concerto is on the right side.
These are lucid and musically perceptive readings, extremely well played, yet studio-bound and with little of the expressive involvement of the rival Orpheus Chamber Orchestra version. In a sense, Gielen’s own dry essay confirms the impression. Without an element of brainstorm or hysteria the First Symphony runs out of steam well before the end; and without very special pleading the Second (abandoned in 1906 and only completed in 1939) gives the impression of a composer desperately rummaging through the cupboards for food which used to be sustaining but which no longer satisfies his appetite.'