To many people the
name of Picasso epitomises ‘difficult’
abstract art. However, if they see any
of his paintings done during his "pink"
or "blue" periods they realise
that, in fact, he could paint in a way
that anyone can understand. In much
the same way I have discovered that
there is no reason to be musically frightened
of Schoenberg. Times were that if I
heard his name announced on the radio
as the composer of the next piece I’d
have switched off pretty damned quickly!
Then one day I heard "Verklärte
Nacht" and it was a revelation
in the true sense of the word. I have
to say, however, that apart from that
work, I knew of no others of his that
were analogous to the paintings of Picasso’s
"pink" and "blue"
periods – that is until this CD arrived.
On this disc there are four works, all
of them wonderful creations and all
of them extremely listenable. At last
I have been freed from my own constraints
as far as Schoenberg is concerned, constraints
put in place through my own ignorance.
The first work is very
interesting in that it is Schoenberg’s
elaboration of Handel’s Concerto Grosso,
Op.6, No.7. As the liner notes explain,
this work should be considered a Schoenberg
composition since, at 22 minutes, it
is 8 minutes longer than the original
and is far from being a simple orchestration.
If you can I urge you to listen to the
Handel original before you listen to
this. I can assure you it is not like
seeing a film after reading the book
on which it is based; on the contrary
it will help you to better appreciate
the work. Having said that the liner
notes explain that Schoenberg was no
great admirer of Handel who, amongst
other things, according to him, wasted
his main theme, which "is always
best when it first appears and grows
steadily more insignificant and trivial
in the course of the piece". Well
Schoenberg clearly thinks highly of
this work’s main theme as he nurses
it throughout the entire concerto.
I imagine that writing
a work for string quartet and orchestra
must be profoundly difficult, requiring,
as it does, the integration of an otherwise
self-contained unit with the orchestra
and the distribution of the "weight"
to each group and to the individuals
within them. In any event the notes
point out that it is "one of the
most demanding for the solo instruments
of a quartet since Beethoven’s Great
Fugue". It was composed in the
summer of 1933 in Arcachon (Gironde),
France, following his enforced departure
from Germany in May that year.
There is no doubt that
it should be considered a Schoenberg
composition since it departs so radically
from Handel in both harmony as well
as instrumental style. There’s some
fiendishly inventive music that, nevertheless
never loses sight of the concerto grosso’s
Handelian theme. Robert Craft’s liner
notes say "this too-little-known,
difficult to play masterpiece…has never
received such a fine performance".
It is certainly played with gusto and
makes for breathtaking listening.
The suite for Piano,
Op. 25, brings us back very much to
what the name of Schoenberg conjures
up musically for most people. It was
composed in 1921-1923, around the time
he discovered the 12-tone row. He uses
it in this work but there is nothing
here to frighten anyone off – far from
it. It is easy to listen to as well
as being fascinating, highly energetic
and brilliant as well as extremely demanding
for the pianist. Christopher Oldfather
gives the work a great performance.
The third work on this
admirable CD is the loveliest of the
Gurre-Lieder "Lied der Waldtraube"
in a wonderfully skilful transcription
of the orchestral version to a chamber
ensemble of fifteen instruments plus
piano and harmonium. It is gorgeous,
sumptuous music and superbly beautifully
sung by Jennifer Lane.
Finally there are the
fifteen poems from Stefan George’s "Das
buch der Hangenden Garten", again
sung by Jennifer Lane. These are also
rich offerings, beautifully sung, and
expertly accompanied by Christopher
Oldfather. Schoenberg was very pleased
with the result when he completed this
work shortly before its first performance
on 14 January 1910. He said that "with
the George songs I have for the first
time succeeded in approaching an ideal
of expression and form which has been
in my mind for years".
The disc is rounded
off by a short interview with Schoenberg,
recorded at his home in July 1949, two
years before his death. He discusses
music and painting and his deep humanity
comes shining through.
When you consider that
this disc gives almost eighty minutes
of music, including a rarely performed
work in what Robert Craft describes
as an unmatched performance, plus three
other pieces and an interview, all for
a super-budget price then it is irresistible.
I hope there are many others who will,
like me, change their opinions of this
icon of twentieth century music. For
my part I am now ready to take on his
other works and am sure I will not find
them anywhere near as daunting as I
used to do. Thanks once again Naxos!
also review by Colin Clarke