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Journeys: Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (1899); Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70 (1887-92); Emerson String Quartet (Eugene Drucker & Peter Setzer, violins, Lawrence Dutton, viola, & David Finckel, 'cello) + Paul Neubauer, viola, and Colin Carr, 'cello; SONY Classical 88725-47060-2, ©2013, TT 61:40, $9.99.
The above listing is in bibliographic-entry format: alphabetical order, but the performance order is, appropriately, chronological. Both works also exist in string orchestra versions: Schoenberg made such an arrangement himself in 1917 and revised it in 1943; Tchaikovsky's was arranged several times after the composer's death, including a recent one by the late Yuli Turovsky, founder of I Musici de Montréal, with a recording of it released in 2009. Both are probably better known to the general public and more frequently performed live and recorded in this format, but both Anthony Burton, the author of the notes in the accompanying booklet, and I prefer the original version for string sextet recorded here. There are 36 other recordings of this version of the Schoenberg and 48 of the Tchaikovsky on the market, but only two of them pair the two works: one by the Boston Chamber Music Society recorded in 1994 and one from 2006 by a St. Petersburg, Russia, ensemble named The Divertissement. There are 51 of the string orchestra version of the Schoenberg, but I have been unable to determine the total number made of that version of the Tchaikovsky – too numerous to count?
There are both similarities and differences in the genesis of the works. Tchaikovsky's was a promise to the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society made when he was elected an honorary member in October 1886. He sketched the first movement of the traditional four-movement work almost immediately, but then abandoned it until June and July 1890 when he completed it in less than three weeks. After single private and public performances, however, he set it aside again to revise the last two movements, which he did in the winter of 1891-92; the first performance of this final version took place in St. Petersburg in December 1892, less than a year before his death, so it was one of his last works. The explanation for the title is that he conceived the main theme of the slow movement (No. 2) in D major and did the bulk of the work on the initial version while in Florence, where and when he also composed La Dame de Pique. Schoenberg likewise composed his work rapidly, in three weeks, but he did not leave Vienna. His work, however, his first major one, is in a single movement with five distinct, but not separate sections, each with its own melodic theme, that follow the stanzas of the poem by Richard Dehmel that inspired it, which was printed at the head of the score and is reproduced on the last two pages of the tri-lingual (English, German, and French, in that order) booklet. It was premièred in Vienna in 1902, by the famous Rosé Quartet, augmented, of course.
Both works involve voyages, physical, emotional/spiritual, and musical. Tchaikovsky's is external and real, from Russia to Italy and back again and through the standard, traditional musical forms of 19th century Romanticism. Schoenberg's is internal, reflecting the walk through the woods of the couple described in the poem, and taking the late-Romantic style that he learned from his teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky, and from the music of Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner that he admired, to a new level of chromaticism, and pushing it towards the 20th century by adding some unusual harmonies and dissonances, and, famously, an officially-unaccepted-by-the-musical-establishment inverted ninth chord that prompted him to quip that the work “cannot be performed, since one cannot perform that which does not exist. Tchaikovsky's voyage is radiant, triumphant, because he seemed to find his compositional way and overcome his depression as a result of this journey that followed some difficult years. Schoenberg's is more somber, in the key of D minor, following the somewhat dark content of the poem, although it concludes in a radiant, serene, moonlit resolution with a positive outlook for the future path and life of the couple, and for the composer, it opened the way for his future creative development. Indeed, if one follows the text as the music progresses, it is easy to see the beginning of the path that leads to the Sprechstimme of his Pierrot lunaire, Op. 21 (1912): this poem, while it has rhyme, reads more like a prose poem than a stanzaic one because the rhyme is irregular, and although its stanzas are of even numbers of lines, except the final three-line one, only the longest two, the second and fourth, have the same number of lines: twelve. That D minor is, however, not necessarily a somber key is proven by the fact that the first and fourth movements of the Tchaikovsky are in it; the third is in A minor. Their resemblances and contrasts make the works a natural pair that inform each other and give the listener an especially rewarding experience.
The booklet is a simple, but quality production, albeit with a few oversights. Its cover is a reproduction of an original painting (medium unspecified) entitled “The Transfiguration” by Katia Setzer (Philip's daughter), also found on the inside of the tray card (there without the SONY Classical emblem in its upper left corner) that depicts a couple in a pastel-toned German Expressionist style, which Schonberg used as a painter, clearly inspired by the Dehmel poem, that is worthy of hanging in a museum. The inside of the cover and its facing page 3 contain the track listings with timings (also found on the outside of the tray card) and recording and printing credits; nowhere is the total playing time printed, however. Burton's notes, which follow a single introductory paragraph by Drucker (A different text with similar content appears on the outside of the tray card, attributed to the ESQ.), are thorough, succinct, and outstanding. The booklet's back cover is in solid color of one of the tones of the painting with the small SONY Classical emblem in its center. Classy!
The performances are crisp, precise, impressive. The Tchaikovsky is downright driven, very energetic and spirited, played with excitement and verve, enthusiasm and intensity, and corresponding dynamics, especially in its outer movements. The Schoenberg is more reflective and restrained, quieter and meditative, as befits a walk in the woods and the rendering of the internal struggle of each individual of the pair and the couple itself. The CD is overall a fine product that stands out amidst the abundant competition.