Philippe Jordan on Arnold Schönberg

Reading time: 3 min. Video Arnold Schönberg

Interview with Philippe Jordan on the world première of the new edition of Schönberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 in its 1914 orchestral version

Have you conducted the chamber version before?

Jordan: No, I unfortunately never conducted the chamber version, but I did the Webern version from the piano, which I find very beautiful and exciting. There is that wonderful arrangement for quintet, that is the same as in Pierrot lunaire – flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano – which lends the work even more intimacy, transparency, while somewhat softening the rough corners and edges which of course the first version has, with all the winds and horn passages making the whole piece harsher. The Webern version is very beautiful, it is played very often.

Does the 1914 version lie between a condensation and a broader orchestration?

Jordan: The great thing for me is that I always wanted to do this chamber symphony and I was looking for a version, an orchestration not too distant from the initial sound, I mean the chamber-musical one. There is always the big question how to make a version for orchestra of such a contrapuntally complex work – and there is a lot of counterpoint in this piece. There are two options: either you do what was usual at that time, you double or triple some of the most audible motifs using particular instruments, the brass, for instance, to make them clearer, come through more sharply – make it more massive, so to speak. But you can take the alternate route: this means not more instruments, not more delineation, but slimming, so that the sound becomes clearer because of the transparency.

Basically, what I had always sought was actually a version that maintained the original chamber-symphony sound but which made it possible for a larger orchestra to play, without additional doubling, adding brass: simply maintaining the sound. Of course there is always the hazard that some of the main voices and secondary ones will perhaps be lost. In the beginning, Schönberg took the easy way out, telling the conductor to do as he desired. Yet he very quickly noticed that that did not work. And then, when I found this 1914 version, which Schönberg orchestrated himself, I was incredibly thankful that I had finally found a version precisely corresponding to what I had been seeking.

Where do you see the difference between the two large versions of 1914 and 1934/35?

Jordan: I think that the main difference of the two versions for large orchestra is that the 1934/35 one is orchestrated much more massively. It is for very large orchestra, tending to the Mahlerian. In that sense, it has nothing to do with chamber music anymore, including the incisive use of brass, trumpets and trombones. But there they are, making the piece extremely symphonic and massive.

In more intimate and rather trickier passages, he often leaves the solo string quartet to play, so it does have truly chamber-musical contrasts, which is very beautiful.

He did not need to do that in the 1914 version, although it is still basically a very orchestral sound – it is for large orchestra, even the 1914 version is not chamber music – however its sound is simply less aggressive. It is more limpid, lucid, less incisive, and that allows the voices to emerge more clearly. And that means it is not absolutely necessary to make large contrasts, or have some passage suddenly played solo, as in the chamber version, which of course also makes greater demands on the string players.

Munich, 1 November 2012

Interview by Eric Marinitsch

Translation: Grant Chorley

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