WERGO was one of the first labels to attract my attention with the emergence of the CD medium. I was quickly impressed by their commitment to produce thoroughly engaging “documents” of some of the thorniest examples of modernism, to the extent that I would often buy a new release with absolutely no prior knowledge of what I would find there. It was through WERGO that I began to appreciate that there was far more to György Ligeti than anything Stanley Kubrick had appropriated; and, as regular readers know, WERGO continues to sustain my interest in this composer through new Ligeti releases.
Not too long ago WERGO initiated a series of reissues under the ‘studio reihe’ rubric. The name has strong connotations of the Second Viennese School; but the scope of the project extends far beyond the influences of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. Thus, my first encounter with ‘studio reihe’ was a CD of a 1972 vinyl recording of three compositions by Christian Wolff, who was definitely aware of Second Viennese School thinking but, partly through the influence of John Cage, did not take long to establish his own unique approach to composition.
The next ‘studio reihe’ title will be released on February 12. This one is an undisputed classic of the Second Viennese School performed by one of the earliest conductors to champion the work of the three composers associated with that label. It is a reissue of a recording made by Hermann Scherchen conducting the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie and soprano Helga Pilarczyk in 1960 in a performance of Schoenberg’s one-act opera “Erwartung” (expectation). As is usually the case, this recording is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.com; but it also can be downloaded from ClassicsOnline. Note that “Erwartung” is only about half an hour in duration; and there are no other selections on this recording. Nevertheless, this is definitely a situation in which quality trumps quantity.
Simply calling Scherchen one of Schoenberg’s champions may unfairly understate the case. Scherchen made his debut as a conductor with a performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. However, he was also a conductor who appreciated how much Viennese tradition lurked beneath the surface of all that ambiguous atonality and vocalizations that danced along the boundary of dramatic declamation. Furthermore, Scherchen was one of the earliest conductors to do justice to the scores of Gustav Mahler; and, when I introduced him on this site, it was to “examine” the remastering of his recordings of three of Mahler’s symphonies. Mahler had attended performances of Schoenberg’s music. If we are to believe the historical record, he did not like what he heard very much; but he still felt it important to be supportive.
Thus, it should not surprise any listener to discover that Scherchen’s approach to “Erwartung” is heavily sustained by his capacity to evoke the neurotic (if not psychotic) connotations that pervade so much of Mahler’s music. “Erwartung” is a monodrama (with a libretto by Marie Pappenheim), basically the interior monologue of a woman in a forest in the dead of night. She is searching for her lover, and her words suggest that they have an assignation. The darkness first confuses her and, as her search continues and her frustration grows, begins to frighten her. When she finally discovers her lover’s body, she realizes that he is dead; and she continues to wander through the forest.
Note that, as a narrative, this could easily have been distilled into one of the darker tales encountered in the Des Knaben Wunderhorn poems. Had Mahler encountered that poem, he probably would have set it as an art song. I make this point because, while Pappenheim’s account is far more extended, it is still an interior monologue. The reader/listener has no idea how much actual time elapses or if the forest (and, for that matter, the lover) exist only in this woman’s mind.
Thus, what is important about this recording is how well Scherchen captures the darkness of Mahler’s rhetoric refracted through Schoenberg’s rethinking of that rhetoric in the absence of any tonal center or, for that matter, the repetition of any clearly defined thematic material. This is seriously disorienting music; and, under Scherchen’s guidance, Pilarczyk captures that disorientation (which is probably the state of the protagonist’s mind) with an almost clinical precision that makes the listening experience downright scary. Much later in life (1945) Schoenberg wrote an admonitory letter to the conductor René Leibowitz, which contained the following sentence:
I do not compose principles, but music.
The structural sophistication that Schoenberg brought to every one of his scores is extraordinary; and “Erwartung” is an excellent representative example. Leibowitz thought he could impress Schoenberg with his ability to identify all those structural details. Schoenberg felt it necessary to tell Leibowitz to get his head out of the score and pay more attention to conducting the music captured in all of that notation.
Scherchen figured out where the music was in “Erwartung,” just as he did every time he took on one of Mahler’s symphonies. This WERGO reissue allows us, once again, to appreciate the full scope of Scherchen’s understanding of Schoenberg. Thus, while the “document” is only slightly more than half an hour, it stands as essential listening for those interested in Schoenberg’s work (or wondering whether or not they want to be interested in it).