This is the first time I have heard this conductor’s work, and I very much hope it will not be the last. Schoenberg’s early masterpiece is today not the bogey piece it once was: his name no longer frightens children and although the German title remains something of a barrier for musical snowflake Brexiteers, the moment one points out that the work is based in D-minor throughout and is a symphonic poem about the consequences of unfaithful sexual activity, a change of attitude can be observed in the Pavlovian receptivity of some members of today’s audiences of whichever generation.
Their change of attitude will be enhanced by this recording. Emmanuel Leducq-Barôme and the fine Baltic Chamber Orchestra deliver the most compelling account of this score I have heard. It is not one of those readings where ‘beauty of tone’ applies a Hollywood veneer of gloss over the phrasing at the expense of the composer’s deeper subtleties of inner life in the music; nor does Leducq-Barôme treat the music as a kind of Straussian self-indulgent wallow (such as is often applied to passages in the almost exactly contemporaneous Tod und Verklärung), the phrasing pulled and pushed around at the whim of the conductor – and here I must assure readers that my “Straussian self-indulgent wallow” comment does not apply in any way to the ethos of Metamorphosen of half-a- century later – the only true successor of Verklärte Nacht.
Honegger’s Second Symphony for strings (a trumpet joins the ensemble in the ultimate coda) is almost exactly contemporaneous with the string-orchestra version of Verklärte Nacht Schoenberg made in 1943. Like Schoenberg, Honegger was then a war-time refugee – Schoenberg in the USA, the Swiss-born Honegger in Paris – and a quite remarkable musical coincidence (which makes the otherwise unusual pairing of these works a sensible and natural choice) is that both works are in D-minor/major: so much so, in Honegger’s case, that his Second Symphony begins in almost exactly the same way as Verklärte Nacht ends – as the Symphony opens, the unwary listener may imagine the preceding work has some way still to go.
However, Honegger’s masterly score is richly characteristic of its composer, and conductor and orchestra combine to give another outstandingly compelling performance, growing in intensity and emotional strength, the committed nature of which, throughout, places the music on an altogether higher level of accomplishment than many previous conductors have achieved.