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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra in B Flat (1933) [20:36]
(1 Largo-Allegro [5:07]; 2 Largo [3:10]; 3 Allegro grazioso [6:35]; 4 Hornpipe [5:44])
Suite for Piano, Op.25 (1921-23) [13:17]
(5 Präludium [1:00]; 6 Gavotte-Musette-Gavotte [3:09]; 7 Intermezzo [3:11]; 8 Menuette, Trio, Menuette da Capo [3:22]; 9 Gigue [2:35])
10 Lied der Waldtraube* (from Gurre-Lieder) (1900) [12:56]
11-25 The Book of the Hanging Gardens, Op.15* [26:38]
26 conversation with Arnold Schoenberg [06:31]
Christopher Oldfather: piano; Jennifer Lane: mezzo*
Fred Sherry String Quartet: (Jennifer Frautschi: violin; Jesse Mills: violin; Richard O’Neill: viola; Fred Sherry: cello)
Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble/Robert Craft
rec. 1-4, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 155th Street and Broadway, New York, October 2002; 5-9, 11-25 above venue, September 2001; 10, May 2000; interview recorded at Arnold Schoenberg’s home in July 1949. The interviewer was the late Professor Halsey Stevens, U.S.C.
NAXOS 8.557520 [79:59]

 

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!

Steve Arloff

see also review by Colin Clarke



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