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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
6 Songs, Op.  8, for soprano and orchestra (1903-4) 1 [25:23]
Friede auf Erden, Op.  13 (1907) 2 [8:35]
6 Pieces for male chorus a cappella, Op.  35 (1929-30) 3 [13:01]
Ei, du Lütte (1895/6) 4  [1:04]
Kol Nidre, for Rabbi-Narrator, mixed chorus and orchestra, Op.  39 (1938) (5) [13:10]
Moses und Aron (1932): Excerpts from “The Golden Calf and the Altar” (Act II, Scene 3) 6 [15:13]
Jennifer Welch-Babidge (soprano) (1, 6)
David Wilson-Johnson (rabbi-narrator) (5)
Simon Joly Chorale (2-6)
Philharmonia Orchestra (1, 5, 6)/Robert Craft
rec. London, 1980s
NAXOS 8.557525 [78:31]

 


This fascinating, well recorded disc, Volume VII of the Robert Craft-Schoenberg Collection, embraces a 42-year period of the composer’s creative life. The common thread here is Schoenberg’s writing for voice or voices – at its most ingratiating in the Six Songs and at its most challenging in the Six Pieces for male chorus.

The Six Songs, Op.  8 (1903-4) are decidedly late-Romantic, thickly scored and sumptuous in equal measure. Such songs as the third and sixth contain passages of great beauty and sensitivity while the fourth song is more conventional and ultimately overblown. Jennifer Welch-Babidge sings both passionately and accurately, relishing the Straussian vocal lines for which great stamina is needed. Only occasionally does her momentary shrillness or tremulousness under pressure become intrusive.

The Six Pieces for male chorus (1929-30, texts by the composer) form an extraordinary group of very wide expressive range, covering different aspects of human experience, such as Happiness, Inhibition, Obligation or Means of Expression. Four of the pieces are serial compositions. The exemplary clarity of scoring is particularly remarkable in what is a notoriously difficult medium. Landsknechte, the fifth piece, is an astonishing tour de force - effectively a slow march full of onomatopoeic sounds representing drumming and trudging feet. These Six Pieces are essential listening for those who may mistakenly think they know every aspect of Schoenberg. Perseverance is needed, but this difficult but masterly work does bring rewards. Of this set, and of the equally demanding Friede auf Erden, the Simon Joly Chorale gives accomplished performances, though not totally free from a sense of strain in the more demanding passages. Those wishing for a little more polish and sensuousness in Friede auf Erden might prefer the Tokyo Symphony Chorus under Kazuyoshi Akiyama (Montaigne).

The tiny miniature Ei, du Lütte, providing the greatest possible contrast to anyone playing the disc straight through, is pure delight. This would make a wonderful “innocent ear” test for a friend.

Schoenberg set Kol Nidre in 1938, by which time he had settled in America. A Los Angeles rabbi having asked him to arrange the traditional Kol Nidre melody, Schoenberg discovered that the text was Sephardic Spanish and therefore applied to Jews who had “gone over to Christianity”. He was also shocked that apparently “all obligations undertaken during the year should be dissolved on the Day of Atonement, which contradicts the high ethical quality of all Jewish commandments”. Schoenberg’s subsequent alterations to the Orthodox ritual resulted in a ban on the use of his version in synagogues. In his view, the Kol Nidre melody itself hardly deserved to be called a melody, as it was more of a succession of melismas all resembling each other. He selected some of these and subjected them to “serial treatment within a tonal framework”, as Malcom MacDonald has written. From the opening bars a potent atmosphere is established, well sustained in this engaging performance and enhanced by David Wilson-Johnson’s fine diction. The neglect of this compelling, dramatic, beautifully orchestrated and thoroughly accessible work can be explained only by anti-Schoenberg prejudice.

Three extracts from Moses and Aron (The Golden Calf and The Altar, Act II Scene 3) complete this disc. Here the contribution of the Philharmonia is very fine, though one or two moments of slightly untidy ensemble suggest one more take would have been a good idea. In particular, the first trombonist’s outstandingly beautiful playing deserves mention. One poignant sentence from Robert Craft’s informative booklet notes demands quotation – “An orgy follows, but at this point the excerpt ends.” (!) Well, if it’s any consolation, I suppose it would be much more disappointing if this were a DVD.

This is a thoroughly recommendable disc, an essential purchase for any Schoenberg collector. Equally, in its demonstration of the composer’s wide expressive range, it is of enormous value to anyone even remotely interested in this 20th-century master.

Texts are available only from a website. This practice is now widespread, but it remains an undesirable substitute for the traditional inclusion of words with the CD notes.

Philip Borg-Wheeler

 

 


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