Despite his sizable contributions to the chamber music medium, vocal/choral music, and opera, Austrian master Arnold Schoenberg left a disappointingly small output for orchestra; he never wrote a proper symphony and, apart from his concerti, the early symphonic poem Pelléas und Melisande, and the string orchestral Verklärte Nacht, his largest stand-alone orchestral works consist of transcriptions of other composers. Nevertheless, his Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 16, (1909) is central to Western orchestral literature and -- largely because of their style -- a highly desirable work to hear in a high-end format. MDG has met this desire through its Schönberg: Orchestral Works hybrid multichannel CD, where the big five are heard as performed by the Beethoven Orchester Bonn, which has distinguished itself with, among other things, an outstanding recording of Liszt's oratorio Christus, backing up the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno. In regard to filler, MDG opts for the Schoenberg's seldom-recorded Six Orchestral Lieder, Op. 6, featuring soprano Manuela Uhl and his never-before-recorded Notturno for harp, violin, and strings (1896) along with his considerably more common orchestral transcription of J.S. Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E minor.
First of all, you simply have to hear this recording based on its extraordinarily fine sound; the shifting colors in "Sommermorgen en einem See" have never been captured with such translucency, moreover at the ultra-quiet levels of volume that Schoenberg specifies, something that has always been a challenge in recording this piece. You can not only hear the piece as a whole at the right volume level, but also the fine gradations between those levels. The overall performance, led by Stefan Blunier, is spirited and confident; "Vorgefühle" fairly jumps out of the speakers with its mixture of dread and panic well modulated by the Beethoven Orchester Bonn and fully coherent in its forward drive. Secondly, despite its lack of traction in the catalog, Schoenberg's Six Orchestral Lieder, Op. 6, is among his best kept secrets, a sort of a little sister to the mammoth Gurrelieder that is sensitively sung here by Manuela Uhl. The Notturno is a brief and peaceful souvenir of a distant time, reminiscent of Brahms in his simpler, less slippery vein. The Bach transcription -- unlike similar efforts by conductor Leopold Stokowski, who never orchestrated this particular Prelude and Fugue anyway -- does not exploit the orchestra's potential for weight and gravity for its effect. It is really rather Viennese in flavor, expanding the potential for orchestral color well beyond what might be suggested by Bach's original and making the work sound lighter rather than darker. Blunier and the Beethoven Orchester Bonn devour this piece with relish, as it seems well suited to their particular palate. Listeners may note a lack of typical orchestral blend in these pieces, which might prove problematic to some, but that seems to have been Schoenberg's intention in his orchestral music: to create a complex disc including many ingredients where nevertheless you can still taste them all. This is the effect that Blunier, the Beethoven Orchester Bonn, and MDG have achieved in this outstanding recording.