SCHOENBERG: Pelleas and Melisande. WEBERN: Passacaglia.

by Walter Simmons

SCHOENBERG: Pelleas and Melisande. WEBERN: Passacaglia. Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Houston Symphony Orchestra. KOCH INTERNATIONAL 3-7316-2 H1 [DDD]; 61:36. Produced by Judith Sherman.

This recent release features two great Viennese works from the first decade of the twentieth century. Richard Strauss had suggested Pelleas and Melisande to Schoenberg as the subject for an opera in 1902, unaware that at that very time Debussy was completing his own opera on the same story. As it happened, Schoenberg preferred the notion of a symphonic poem, completing what proved to be one of the most elaborate and fully developed examples of the genre–and his first work for symphony orchestra–the following year, shortly after finishing the first portion of Gurrelieder.

Pelleas consists of four sections that depict the essential characters, emotions, and events of the story, while corresponding loosely to the four movements of a classical symphony. Knit together seamlessly, the four sections run some three-quarters of an hour without pause, an apotheosis of the Lisztian symphonic poem as elaborated and refined by Wagnerian innovations in harmonic and motivic complexity, executed with a Brahmsian concern for tonal relationships and contrapuntal detail: The result is a labyrinthine network of motivic interplays, implications, and combinations, which slowly unfolds to conjure and reveal a seething netherworld of elemental emotions, reified through the hyper-reality of myth. This music is indeed both structurally complex and emotionally “heavy,” requiring several hearings before its sense of direction is limned. (Mahler himself is said to have had difficulty following the score.) Listeners familiar with Verklaerte Nacht or Gurrelieder will have the idea. Indeed, Scriabin’s contemporaneous Divine Poem is simple and straightforward by comparison. Yet, as with Gurrelieder, the process of immersing oneself in this aesthetic realm is not at all palatable, as the music offers sheer enjoyment right from the start–simple pleasures like infectious melodic and harmonic turns, luscious orchestration, and powerful climaxes. And, as with the greatest music, there is always that delicious intuition that greater rewards will follow further immersion–something I still feel after knowing this music for more than twenty-five years.

Webern’s Passacaglia makes an ideal coupling with Pelleas. Composed some five years later, it plumbs and reveals a similar psycho-emotional territory, despite important differences in approach. Both works are products of considerable intellectual discipline, but while Schoenberg’s displays a Straussian robustness, opulence, and generosity, Webern’s is brief highly concentrated, a kaleidoscopic sequence of emotional states of exquisitely horrifying intensity. A brilliant product of the sort of sensibility that used to be termed “neurasthenic,” the work conveys a feeling of hysterical anxiety in dread of imminent catastrophe that often suggests late Mahler who was writing his Ninth Symphony at the time). In fact, the Passacagliaoften sounds as if it were Mahler’s Eleventh Symphony condensed into fourteen minutes. As someone who firmly believes that the works of Webern’s maturity represent one of the most inauspicious dead-ends in all of music, I nevertheless feel that this Op. 1, written when the composer was twenty-five, is a masterpiece of the period. Both these works are truly of their time — a time when the fundamental emotions underlying and motivating human behavior were addressed by the arts with greater insight and sensitivity than they had been before or have been since Eschenbach’s readings are both highly expressive and deeply analytical, although the Houston Symphony may not project the sense of spiritual authenticity as thoroughly as do Karajan’s recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic (now available only within a three-disc set). But these are meticulously executed, subtly nuanced interpretations, which benefit significantly from a recording technique that provides extraordinary transparency of detail without compromising richness of sonority, thus enabling striking orchestral effects to be heard more clearly than they usually do on recording, let alone in live performances, where they are usually lost completely. Steve Smith’s intelligent and informed program notes are a further enhancement. This disc is strongly recommended to aficionados of late-romantic music who might have avoided these works because of a reflexive aversion to the composers’ names.