SCHOENBERG: Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16. WEBERN: Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6. BERG: Lulu-Suite
Arleen Augér, soprano; City of Birmingham Symphony Orch/Simon Rattle, cond.
EMI ENCORE 75880 (B) (DDD) TT: 63 min.

This archival homage to “The Second Viennese School” from EMI’s Rattle recordings with the CBSO has one indisputable advantage over all competition: It is the cheapest. if you shop the web wisely. I found one site offering it for $6.29 (plus, of course, s-&-h, which was not cheap, be warned). Packaging is slick, if you don’t mind a fold-out liner that gives more space to red-hot Rattle today than it does to brief bios of all three composers, or to their music which is not exactly standard repertoire. Another fold has photos of the composers, and two more folds that sell “Further titles in the ‘encore’ series.” However, the works themselves are listed by content as well as by sub-titles and timings on the back fold, while the frontispiece is a glossy come-on.

What exactly does one get (but not get in the case of the Schoenberg’s Five Pieces, namely which edition of the work Rattle used, the 1909 original or the 1922 revision for smaller forces)? Mostly growing-up performances by a young conductor—25 when he became principal conductor and eventually music director—of an orchestra he stayed with from 1980 till 1997. The best version still available of Schoenberg’s spooky pre-serial music is Michael Gielen’s from 1987 (the same year as Rattle’s) with the SWR Symphony of Baden-Baden on Wergo 60185-50, paired with “Modern Psalm” (the composer’s final completed work from 1950-51), Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, and a progressively bizarre “free transcription” for Cello and Orchestra from 1932 of a “Claviercembalo Concerto” by Matthias Georg Mann (1717-50). Schoenberg intended it for Casals, who studied but never played it publicly. Gregor Piatigorsky, then still first cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic, professed to admire the composer but looked the other way. Emanuel Feuermann finally gave the premiere in 1937 at a London concert conducted by Beecham in honor of Sibelius!—a story too delectably weird to omit. If Gielen can’t be located, the Five Pieces have been severally recorded, if not quite as eerily by Pierre Boulez, Antal Doráti, and James Levine. Rattle’s reading, to put it nicely, was not yet second-nature.

Neither were Webern’s pointillistic Six Pieces, Op. 6, from 1910, done to a turn by Boulez with the Berlin Philharmonic, by Levine in Chicago, and by Gielen (albeit didactically intercut with excerpts from Schubert’s Rosamunde, as if it prove thereby that the “The Second Viennese School” wasn’t that far removed from “The First” – this on the second disc of his otherwise magnificent Mahler Third for Hänssler).

The rest of Rattle’s disc features Alban Berg’s Lulu-Suite, five “symphonic pieces” from that unfinished opera, completed posthumously by Friedrich Cerha some 20 years later. It is his best reading of non-tonal music from the first decade of his Birmingham career, with the late Arleen Augér singing both Lulu’s “Lied” and the Countess Geschwitz’s dying lines in the final “Adagio.” Hers was a lovely if perhaps genteel voice for the amoral heroine of this shocker—one needs to hear Jessye Norman in her prime with Boulez (and the bonus of Der Wein in Sony’s repackaging), or the protean Margaret Price with Abbado in an analog recording that should be—if it already isn’t—a “Legendary” recording on DG.

Moral? You pays your money—a little or a lot—and takes your choice. But I have to say, price apart, pre-knighted Rattle from 1987-88 would not be my first choice, or perhaps even fourth, if I didn’t know but was curious about the music and its still-controversial character in many quarters.

R.D. (October 2003)