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Grant Chu Covell
La Folia, January 2011

“Schoenberg invented us,” aptly remarks Reinbert de Leeuw while discussing the First Chamber Symphony during one of the DVD’s illustrated lectures. (Is there anyone who doesn’t think Schoenberg is pivotally important to 20th-century music?) In addition to two fine recordings, Dorian ladles up detailed and thoughtful programs about Schoenberg’s most performed works, Verklärte Nacht and Chamber Symphony No. 1. I’m not biased simply because my college composition professor, Richard Hoffmann, Schoenberg’s amanuensis, appears. Of course not! We see analyses, historical materials, tours of Vienna’s recently established Arnold Schönberg Center, etc. Others involved include Anner Bylsma, René Clemencic, Christian Meyer, and Kenneth Slowik doing double-duty as conductor and narrator. The soft-focus filming for Verklärte Nacht may overreach, but that’s what the audio-only CD is for.

Christopher Abbot
Fanfare, March 2010

This set contains no printed notes. The handsome tri-fold digipack holds the two discs; its panels display the poem by Richard Dehmel upon which Schoenberg based his sextet, the timings of the individual movements, and production information (including a list of the performers). Information about the works and the performances can be gleaned from the documentary section of the bonus DVD.
Verklärte Nacht is one of those love-hate works, and I don’t imagine that this performance will change anyone’s mind. I found the performance to be convincingly dramatic, and watching the musicians on the DVD added to my sense that they were totally committed to the work. I prefer the sextet version to either of Schoenberg’s string orchestra arrangements, finding that the intensity of the music is more readily communicated through the original scoring. The performance of the Chamber Symphony pulses with impetuous energy; Schoenberg’s genius at concentrating the essence of late Romanticism into this 22-minute masterpiece is faithfully interpreted by the musicians assembled under the aegis of the Smithsonian.

Conductor Slowik serves as host on the DVD for the background programs about Schoenberg and the two works (there are also bonus programs about the Schoenberg Center and the Smithsonian). These introductory programs, in the form of commentaries, serve as program notes, providing insightful information about each piece. One example: Richard Hoffmann, a former student of Schoenberg’s, reads (in English) the composer’s explication of Verklärte Nacht written for the Hollywood Quartet recording, matching the text to the music. Slowik provides a similarly detailed analysis of the Chamber Symphony. These accompanying programs possess crude production values and their unusually poor sound can make for tedious listening. Luckily, the filmed performances are not plagued by similar compromises. Verklärte Nacht was filmed with a hazy quality, complementing the Romantic cast of the music, while the performance of the Chamber Symphony is brightly lit, in keeping with the more intensely modernist qualities of that score.

On the CD, the sound provided for Verklärte Nacht is dark and heavy, closely miked and claustrophobic—which may strike some listeners as appropriate for that work; for the Chamber Symphony, the intensity of the performance is compromised by sound that is strident and airless, despite the more spacious environs of Coolidge Auditorium. On the DVD, the sound is much improved: in 5.1 surround sound, even without a surround system, the acoustic is balanced and much easier on the ear. Incidentally, tracks are provided for each section of each work on the CD; unfortunately, the timings as listed on the package are reversed, those for the Symphony listed for Verklärte Nacht, and vice-versa…When one factors in the DVD, however, this set could serve as an exemplary introduction to this early phase of Schoenberg’s career, and on that basis I heartily recommend it.

Stephen Estep
American Record Guide, January 2010

The performance of Verklärte Nacht, in the sextet scoring, is exquisite; the ensemble’s expression and communication are superb, and intonation and tone are quite good...The Chamber Symphony is also elegantly played, nuanced and compelling, though it could be more fiery. The recorded sound is excellent.

I highly recommend this release—two solid performances and the DVD in one package is a bargain.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

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