Eighty-two years after it was left in abeyance and fifty-seven after the initial hearing of its torso, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron remains an ambivalent, even problematic concept not merely for its incompleteness. For all that, the composition as it stands encompasses one-hundred minutes of Schoenberg at his most combative and provocative: music which impresses through the very dramatic immediacy that might have led the composer, who saw his creative mission in terms akin to those of Moses interpreting the Tables of the Law, to set it aside in the first instance.
Staging inevitably remains rare, though recordings periodically emerge and this reissue from Sony heads a distinguished roster. Hans Rosbaud was a formidable exponent of modern music; his reputation resting on concert performances rather than his handful of studio recordings. Among these latter, most significant is this first commercial outing for Moses und Aron – also the first performance of the completed two Acts, three years before the first stage presentation. The result, as re-mastered, is something of a revelation: the intricate density of Schoenberg’s contrapuntal writing has rarely sounded so elegant and sinuous, with the technical challenges not so much smoothed out as taken onto a higher level of refinement. Those who might expect an aural assault course will most likely be surprised by the allure of what they hear.
In vocal terms, matters are hardly less consistent. Hans Herbert Fiedler evinces the requisite gravity and thoughtfulness for the exacting Sprechstimme of Moses, even if his assumption lacks something of the intense striving that David Pittman-Jennings (for Pierre Boulez’s re-make on DG) brings. Helmut Krebs has no less eloquence and poise as Aron, though without quite the vocal agility which makes Philip Langridge (for Georg Solti on Decca) still the most captivating exponent of this cruelly exacting role. Heard together, moreover, the pair amply points up that duality of heart and brain which is made manifest throughout the work; their complementary timbres underlining the degree to which these two figures aspire to being representations of that same existential – and, more obliquely, creative – presence.
The smaller roles are persuasively taken, with the NDR Chorus leaving little to be desired in rhythmic accuracy and tonal finesse. Moses und Aron is in large part a choral opera and the singing is as lucid as it can (rightly) be aggressive. Nor is the playing of the NDRSO lacking in dynamism, even if the Chicago Symphony and Royal Concertgebouw orchestras outclass it in visceral power and textural richness; as does the SACD sound for Sylvain Cambreling (Hänssler) in clarity and dynamic range. Rosbaud conveys the ominous mystery of the initial scene at the Burning Bush, and if he yields to Boulez in the cumulative intensity of the Finale to Act One or Solti in the sheer abandon of the scene around the Golden Calf in Act Two, there is no doubting the stark poignancy of Moses’s anguish as the final part fragments to nothingness.
The present release comes without libretto or translation, but it does have a full track-listing and extensive synopsis. Those who possess one or more of the above recordings still need to acquire this Rosbaud: for the overall consistency of the solo and choral singing, the excellence of the recorded sound – and, above all, the unwavering conviction which Rosbaud brings to what previously has been thought unyielding and intractable, revealing a defining statement from a period of cultural upheaval in the mid-twentieth-century.