Schoenberg: Pelleas und Melisande, Op 5; Violin Concerto, Op 36

Reviewed on Mon 21 Sep, 2015

Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto was written for the great Jascha Heifetz, who, in spite of repeated efforts to come to grips with it, never played it. Kolja Blacher makes the music sound like Schoenberg’s idol Brahms, his approach as passionate as Hilary Hahn’s but tougher-grained, much as it needs to be when tackling Brahms’s Concerto.

It’s sometimes hard to tell whether difficult music becomes easier with the passing of time or whether later performers have it so much under their skin that they actually make it sound easier. Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto was written for the great Jascha Heifetz, who, in spite of repeated efforts to come to grips with it, never played it. Years later, Hilary Hahn tenderised the music to the extent of making it accessible, her DG recording both intelligently phrased and tonally warm. Kolja Blacher (the son of the composer Boris Blacher, by the way) goes one step further and makes the music sound like Schoenberg’s idol Brahms, his approach as passionate as Hahn’s but tougher-grained, much as it needs to be when tackling Brahms’s Concerto. It’s still not an ‘easy listen’ – nor should it be – but with Markus Stenz and the Cologne Gürzenich Orchestra on hand with a keen-eared accompaniment, you’re gripped for the duration. Similarly with the 38-minute tone poem Pelleas und Melisande, the musical equivalent of a forest hike amidst dark, mysterious shadows. Again, Stenz and his Orchestra facilitate a journey that’s as natural as it’s absorbing, the playing first-rate, the sound expertly balanced. If you already respect this music, Stenz and Blacher may well help you to love it.
–Rob Cowan