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Gramophone, October 2009

As ever, Robert Craft polarises opinion, and his 1999 version with German singer Anja Silja has its passionate advocates and determined knockers. In the context of every other available recording, I hear an immaculately prepared performance and the Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble do not compromise Schoenberg’s intricate spectrum but her Sprechstimme too easily morphs towards singing, and Pierrot arrives home at the end of his journey sounding pretty much as he did at the start…

Tony Haywood
MusicWeb International, August 2007

Naxos’s reissues of the Koch/Robert Craft series continue with what must be one of the most enticing Schoenberg collections around. This is a well-nigh ideal introduction to his Expressionist years, with only really the Five Orchestral Pieces and Erwartung missing. All the pieces are in safe hands with these performers, and only in a couple of cases would I opt for other recordings.

The discs opens with that curious little masterpiece Herzgewächse (Love’s Foliage), a short setting of a typical text by Maeterlinck, dense with symbolism and period angst. It’s scored for coloratura soprano, harmonium, celesta and harp, and odd but colourful accompaniment that glints and wheezes below the adventurous vocal line. If angularity of phrase and width of interval are seen as characteristic of Expressionist compositions, then this takes the biscuit—the singer needs a three octave compass and at the end is asked to soar up to F above top C, and sing it pppp! It’s an almost insane demand, but sopranos whom take this piece on are usually up to it, and Eileen Hulse is well on top of things. She has a pleasingly rounded tone, and if I miss the razor-sharp edge and precision of Christine Schaeffer and Boulez (DG, also coupled with Pierrot Lunaire), Hulse does invest the song with more warmth and feeling than some.

The rendition of Pierrot Lunaire is also pretty good, though here it’s how the term sprechtstimme (speech-song) is interpreted that is the moot point. Anja Silja is as adept in this repertoire as any, and she is my favourite recorded Marie in Berg’s Wozzeck (with Dohnanyi, Decca) so she knows what’s needed. In this instance, she chooses more to ‘sing’ rather than speak, and this makes the songs less histrionic, more ‘normal’ (musical?) compared to other sopranos. For instance, at the end of ‘Der Kranke Mond’ (The Sick Moon, Tr.8) she simply sings the closing line softly and lets it fade away, virtually ignoring Schoenberg’s instruction here. Jane Manning (with Rattle on Chandos) makes a curious gurgling noise, very theatrical, making the words dissolve down into the depths. Schaeffer is somewhere between the two, linking it perhaps more to its cabaret origins, but it highlights the problems of interpreting this work and that infamous sprechtstimme marking. Silja is certainly alert to the mood of the text and she is beautifully accompanied by Craft and his players, again quite romantically rather than with Boulez’s cool, almost nervous edge.

The Four Orchestral Songs are lovely creations, sensual settings of three Rilke poems and one by another Expressionist favourite Stefan George. In many ways they hark back to the Wagnerian world of Gurrelieder rather than the hysterical paranoia of Erwartung or the wild expressionism of Pierrot. Catherine Wyn-Rogers has a mellifluous mezzo tone that suits Craft’s warm approach, again perfectly valid. I have got used to the glorious Yvonne Minton over the years, deftly accompanied by Boulez and the BBCSO, a filler to his Gurrelieder (Sony) but this Craft version has better sonics, with a wide-ranging sound and better orchestral focus.

The First Chamber Symphony is a wonderful piece, just about tonal but full of the youthful invention and harmonic experimentation that were to take him to the brink. It’s tightly structured, a debt to his beloved Brahmsian model, and this version—in its original chamber scoring—is lovingly phrased and beautifully executed. I miss some the daring and sheer élan that the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra bring to the piece (DG, coupled with the Second Chamber Symphony and the ‘middle’ version of Verklärte Nacht—an indispensable 20th Century disc) but the Craft recording is well in keeping with his general approach and rounds the disc off in style.

As has become the norm, the authoritative and expert notes are by Craft himself, but it’s a great shame there are no texts when three of the four items here are major vocal works. Knowing what is being sung is always important, but here the words are utterly vital to an understanding of the composer’s sound world and need to be followed. Luckily I dug them out from the rival version discussed above, as others will have to do…a firm recommendation for the playing, singing and recording.

William Yeoman
Limelight, July 2007

Given his interests in both early and contemporary music, writer, critic and conductor Robert Craft is in many ways the ideal interpreter for Pierrot. Not to mention the fact that he recorded much of Schoenberg’s music as far back as 1963, and all of Webern (1957). Naxos has been busy reissuing the Schoenberg recordings Craft made for Koch International Classics; this is volume six. I originally bought Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder when it was still on Koch, and was impressed not so much by the soloists as by the focused delineation of the score under Craft’s baton. That same precision is brought to all the works here, but this time the soloists are also excellent. Herzgewäschse for coloratura soprano, celesta, harmonium and harp sees Eileen Hulse effortlessly sailing into the heavens, while mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers bring s some nice timbral shadings to the Rilke in Four Orchestral Songs. Most, though, will be buying this disc for the Pierrot, and they won’t be disappointed. Anja Silja perfectly captures a dreamlike clarity and mystery; she is not as overtly expressive as Christine Schäfer with Pierre Boulez (DG), but this works in Silja’s favour by creating an even more distancing effect. This excellent disc concludes with a superb performance of Schoenberg’s pre-atonal Chamber Symphony No. 1.

James H. North
Fanfare, July 2007

Freed from having to support a vocalist, Craft loosens up in the Chamber Symphony, and his ensemble of stars delivers vital, exhilarating playing. The lush, sweet acoustics of the Recital Hall at the SUNY Purchase Performing Arts Center in Purchase, New York, smooth out Schoenberg’s 15 individual lines, making the ensemble sound more like a conventional orchestra. It’s pleasant to hear but belies the composer’s revolutionary one-instrument-on-a-part scoring. Nevertheless, a great performance. © 2007 Fanfare Read complete review

Arnold Whittall
Gramophone, May 2007

In recycling the Koch International Classics recordings of Robert Craft’s Schoenberg series, Naxos is creating new and interesting juxtapositions. The four works on this CD come from a relatively short period—1906–16—but are enormously varied as well as astonishingly intense.

The performances of the brief but exotic Herzgewächse and the more elaborate Op 22 Songs remain among the best things in the Craft series. Both singers—especially Eileen Hulse, making real music from the hugely demanding vocal line of Op 20—are very good, and the recordings convey both the delicacy and richness of the complex instrumental accompaniments. Pierrot lunaire has been much more frequently recorded, and this account, despite the imposing dramatic character which Anja Silja brings to the “speech-song” and the quality of the individual instrumental contributions, can’t be a first choice: it’s too wayward, also a bit too effortful and unspontaneous, for that. The performance of the Chamber Symphony is also effortful, if by that one means calculatedly hard-driven and anti-romantic. Yet there’s no denying the sheer excitement, the authentically Schoenbergian iconoclasm of what Craft and his team of 15 virtuosos achieve.

The disc as a whole is a useful reminder of the innovatory yet accessible expressive power that these works reveal when challenges to performers are confronted and, more often than not, overcome. It’s a pity—given the emphasis on vocal works—that no texts are provided. But the recording themselves have worn well.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2007

Those who enjoy Pierrot Lunaire—and I do not belong to their clan—get very worked up about the singer’s interpretation of Schoenberg’s intentions. This recording from the great opera soprano, Anja Silja, will certainly divided opinion as she sings most of the work rather than using a speech-orientated approach, which was arguably Schoenberg’s intention. So far as I am concerned, and I guess many others, Silja almost persuades me as to the work’s value, her account a virtuoso use of the voice, with diction that is second to none. Robert Craft presses forward with tempos, the Twentieth Century’s playing wonderfully detailed with the interplay between voice and instruments realised with a surety you will seldom hear. Assembled from previous releases on the Koch label it continues Craft’s series of Schoenberg’s music, the contents essentially coming from the composer’s unflinching atonal period. I equally admire Catherine Wyn-Rogers, in the Four Orchestral songs, her voice so weighty at the bottom of the range, though I can never understand Schoenberg’s musical reaction to such beautiful poems. The Chamber Symphony—here presented in its original form—comes from the point were Schoenberg had begin the journey from tonality. In one extended movement with Wagner and Richard Strauss flitting through the music, I have never encountered a performance that achieves this amount of clarity. Part recorded in London and part in New York over the period 1994 to 1998, the sound does vary from the spaciousness of the Four Orchestral Songs to the closely recorded Chamber Symphony. Sound levels could have been better attended to, as it requires lowering your volume for the final track.

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