, February 2007
When I return to Schoenberg, often after a little while away, my first reaction is ‘what a complicated and convoluted language’. After that I move to consider what a genius he was.
With this piece, when Act 2 ends, a real sense of sadness passed over me. Why? Because the work is unfinished and emotionally one feels quite drained. The two acts we have are called 1. The Calling and 2. The Golden Calf and the third, for which only a few pathetic sketches survive, was to have been Aaron’s Death.
So why did Schoenberg start this extraordinary project? We have to remember that in the late 1920s whilst Schoenberg espoused the Lutheran religion of Germany he started to become increasingly aware of the anti-semiticism which was soon to engulf the country. Later he returned to Judaism but for now this biblical subject allowed him to explore his own culture and motivation.
So what is Moses and Aaron? In his excellent booklet notes Sergio Morabito writes astutely: “Schoenberg’s objective is to represent the personality clashes between the individual characters of Moses, Aaron and the people, and because of the religio- philosophical positioning of the opera, there are no direct references to the historical past”. Schoenberg brings it all into our own times. Not surprisingly therefore, looking at the production photographs in the booklet, the performers are in modern and quite informal dress. I wouldn’t want to imply that there is no plot to speak of. Naxos does not reproduce the text which actually on this occasion I am quite relieved about as the work does seem incredibly wordy. They do however supply a most useful three page synopsis of each of the nine scenes incorporated in the two acts.
The opera begins with Israel still under the yoke of Pharaoh. Moses receives his calling from GOD and wants to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. There is massive opposition. As the plot develops we see Moses attempting to guide the people away from the worship of the golden calf and the old superstitions towards monotheism. He ascends the mountain to return with the tablets of the law to find that the golden calf has disappeared. The Israelites march out of Egypt. They have won the miracle they had been asking for.
It cannot be denied that listening to the work is tough but then so is looking at the paintings of Picasso, Schoenberg’s contemporary. Stylistically the opera relates to the Variations for Orchestra written at the end of the 1920s. The interlude between the acts is not unlike the wild frenetic writing found in the film sequence music which falls half way through Berg’s opera Lulu.
I found myself wondering how the chorus, who are superb, managed to remember it all, and how wonderfully the conductor Roland Kluttig, well known in his work on many contemporary scores, keeps it all so securely together. There are many passage of highly complex polyphony and it must be remembered that this is a fully-fledged twelve tone score - a fact which Schoenberg was especially proud of. It is therefore also tough for the listener but I do believe that the opera is Schoenberg’s overwhelming masterpiece both in its sense of drama and in its almost classical balance of number opera and its espousal of Wagner’s concept of continuous symphonic development.
The principals carry the main weight of the music. Whether Wolfgang Schöne or any ‘singer’ performing Moses ends up rather frustrated I wouldn’t know but he hardly sings at all. Schoenberg employs his unique - for the time - sprechgesange initially heard in the 1912 masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire. This makes Moses stand apart from the other main roles although in the writing for the chorus the composer sometimes also adopts the same technique. Schöne is clear and rigorous throughout and has the required air of bitterness and resignation. Chris Merritt sings passionately as Aaron and knows the work intimately. For my taste though he has too much vibrato, which in this music can be a problem. In this context precision of pitches and their relationships with other pitches is essential and must not be compromised. To hear him at his best you must look out for Boulez’s 1996 recording on DG with the Concertgebouw (DG 449174). The minor roles are neatly cast and although some can sound a little recessed their placement in the aural space aids the stage image. This is a live version and you will, especially through headphones, pick out audience noises occasionally and applause at the very end. None of these factors are at all distracting. The stereo spacing is good: you feel you are hovering somewhere over say, the fifth row back from the front. Now and again there is a sense of audio congestion but I suspect that this is inevitable in a score of such complexity.
If I had to pick a version I would go for the 1996 Boulez because I prefer the solo work and the disc’s presentation. However, at Naxos price for a work for which you need some patience and application this version is perfectly good.