BERG: Altenberglieder, op. 4. SCHOENBERG: Verklärte Nacht, op. 4. Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9b.
Irma Kolássi; Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française; Orchestra of the Southwest German Radio/Jascha Horenstein.
Pristine Classics PASC 445 MONO (Berg)/STEREO (Schoenberg) TT: 67:10.

Tomes and postcards from Vienna. Jascha Horenstein became renowned, even revered, for his performances of Mahler and Bruckner. Indeed, he had been an early champion of both and led many pioneering recordings. But his repertoire, as his series of Time-Life discs shows, ranged far beyond any one specialty. Horenstein, early on, led many premieres of classic modern works, but the Nazis put paid to his first European career. After the war, he led a gypsy's life, mostly in Europe, and ended up with a prodigious recording legacy, although he never had a permanent orchestra. I never saw him live and thus know only his recordings, many of which I consider the gems of my collection.
I think him especially good in "hard" modern music, even though he could toss off a bon-bon as well as anybody except Beecham or Szell. The program here is as heavy as sauerbraten und Kartoffeln soup -- echt-serious Germanophones at their seriousest. I happen to like this music, but I like it in the same way I like the Ring cycle -- a mountain to climb every once in a while, rather than every day or even month.

Of the three main figures of the Second Viennese School -- Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern), I like Berg the least. His music seems to me unoriginal -- too dependent on post-Wagnerian melodic habits (not my favorites) and often adolescently overheated. The Altenberglieder mostly prove my point. They don't differ all that much in terms of melodic or rhythmic construction, and the orchestration contributes more to the expression than the voice, although if you told me that Berg hadn't even read the texts, I'd believe you. It's mainly Angst and gloom. The exception is the final song, "Hier ist Friede" (here is peace), where Berg shows finally that he is not all swoops and swoons. It reminds me a bit of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, a kind of third cousin once removed. These tracks record the French premiere in 1953. Although mezzo Irma Kolássi sings her ungrateful part with extraordinary beauty, the French National Radio Orchestra might as well have played music from the moon. They don't get it. The ensemble is murky and hesitant, despite Horenstein's managing to get one or two coherent moments from the players.
Verklärte Nacht, based on a melodramatic, nothing poem by Richard Dehmel, may be Schoenberg's most-played and -recorded work. Schoenberg originally wrote the work for string sextet in 1899 and arranged it for string orchestra in 1917. It's program music, but I find it best to dispense with the program. The work holds together all on its own.
Until now, I didn't much care for it, although I admired its construction and its string writing. As I say, post-Wagnerian chromatic music (Bruckner, Mahler, and Strauss excepted) turns me off. I find it turgid and too derivative. Verklärte Nacht struck me as a Tristan und Isolde knock-off. It turns out I just hadn't heard a great performance. Now it seems radiant, poetic, and incredibly inventive. That's all due to Horenstein. For me, this is the performance of the score. Horenstein shines an astoundingly clear light on the complexities of Schoenberg's string textures and the tone of the players ravishes. Horenstein challenged my preconceptions and changed my mind. On the other hand, I've always loved the Chamber Symphony No. 1 (1906). By it, Schoenberg claimed to have invented the Modern chamber orchestra. At any rate, circumstances determined its forces. Since no conventional symphony orchestra would play a work so radical, he resorted to his private music society, which already had presented radical symphonic works arranged for reduced forces (all the players the society could afford, and even then, it gratefully took advantage of "freebies"). The piece comes from Schoenberg's "expanded tonality" period, wherein he leaves conventional tonality for such things as intervallic sequences and harmonies made up of whole notes and quarter intervals (a bit like Hindemith before the fact). However, vestiges of chromatic functional harmony remain. We actually get real cadences on -- get this -- major chords, although the functional steps are so compressed, it sounds as if the modulation teleported in from Nova Zembla. Schoenberg lays out the work as a one-movement symphony. There are five sections: Sonata, Scherzo, Development, Adagio, and Recapitulation. The sections are easy to tell apart, and in any case structurally important transitions are signaled by a motto theme consisting of consecutive fourths. The actual symphonic argument is difficult to follow without a score, particularly due to Schoenberg's method of continuous variation. All later themes come from a small set of ideas, including subsidiary lines, and the texture is contrapuntally busy, almost Straussian, although the instrumentation is much clearer than in Strauss. Despite all this, the piece has tremendous energy and sweep.
I've heard performances roughly contemporaneous to Horenstein's, and they unfortunately treat the score as new music. They struggle. Horenstein treats it as music. He has the key. It remains one of my top performances of the score after all these years. Chailly on Decca outdoes Horenstein with a better orchestra and better sonics, despite Pristine's wizardry, but Horenstein has a grittiness and acerbity Chailly lacks. Chailly plays the work as suave post-Mahler and -Strauss. Horenstein sees the work as radical and visionary.

Audio restoration work amazed me from the earliest days, when it just greatly reduced pops and crackles. The art has advanced since then, both in the writing of new software and in its application. Pristine, known for its rescues and restorations from the acoustic and early electric era, I commend for going into the early stereo eras as well as its creation of "stereo" recordings from classic monaural discs when tape from a second mike has been found. Andrew Rose, Lani Spahr, and Mark Obert-Thorne may qualify as audio wizards, but the state of the source does limit their wizardry. The original state of the Berg must have been awful. The sound here is claustrophobic. The Schoenbergs, on the other hand, are quite fine, even at times spacious. This is historic recording without tears.

S.G.S. (October 2018)