> Anton Webern - Orchestral Works [GH]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Orchestral Works

Passacaglia Op 1 (1908); Five Movements for Strings Op 5 (1929); Six Pieces Op 6 (1909 rev 1928) Five Pieces Op 10 (1911-13); Symphony Op 21 (1928); Variations Op 30 (1940)
Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
Recorded Ulster Hall, March 29th-30th 2000
NAXOS 8.554841 [52.27]


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"A note up here, a note down there, the music of a madman" thus spoke Anton Webern after a performance of the Symphony, and if it was a badly prepared performance this is exactly how it can sound. I must immediately say that these are not in any way poor performances. In fact these are superb performances and mostly very gripping.

Webern is very much a composer who is more talked about than heard certainly in public, so it is a wonderful thing that Naxos and the Ulster Orchestra have tackled this composer at a time when the industry is said to be in crisis. Many musicians own the scores, as indeed I do, but how often do we refer to them. At present it seems to be almost sinful to admit to enjoying 12-tone music. Well beware, you may well enjoy this CD. This is great music very finely performed.

The three periods of Webern's career are illustrated; the Passacaglia in the late-romantic style found in early Schoenberg secondly the atonal style of Opp. 5, 6 and 10, and the serial compositions represented by Op 21 and Op 30.

Let me begin with two small quibbles. The Passacaglia begins with the theme in the bass as is usual, in the lower strings. It should be audible without having the volume extraordinarily high. I turned it up considerably and then was blasted out at the big climax. Two other versions that I know do not fall into this trap. Karajan (on a DG triple CD set 427 424-2) has the opening too loud in relation to what is to come. Boulez (complete works triple box set Sony SM3k 45845) has the balance just right, I feel.

My second quibble concerns the orchestral balance, where sometimes the strings seem to be under-recorded. For instance the Op 6 orchestral Pieces are a set of musical micro-organisms. Each instrument is of equal importance but the strings are thinner than is needed. The amazingly beautiful Op 10 no 2 is likewise a slight problem.

The timings on these works set the scene. The longest work, at almost 12 minutes, is the Op 6, which consists of six pieces of which the fourth is the extraordinary funeral march. This comes off brilliantly and is superbly recorded.

Yuasa’s approach is generally not as spacious as Karajan and in the Symphony and the Variations is even quicker than Boulez. Mostly this works well but there are times in the Variations when I wish that he would linger over a few details. Karajan’s Passacaglia is two minutes slower than Yuasa as he draws out the Romantic atmosphere. The Karajan approach draws out not only the antecedents of this work but perhaps also of all Webern. Even the late works are nothing other than brief, quiet, self-effacing Romantic gestures.

The later music comes off better than the earlier pieces and it is interesting that the strictly serial pieces with their tighter control may be easier to conduct than the aphoristic statements of, say, the atonal Op 10. In the Variations certain lines, yes I’ll say it, melodies, are heard over again always in slightly different guises helping players and listeners through the textures. In Op 10 you have gestures, which are no sooner come than gone - a sprinkling of celeste, a side drum roll, a viola tremolando, all perhaps diffuse and totally outside normal form and development.

I should add that these works do not constitute Webern’s complete orchestral works. He orchestrated a Bach Fugue and some Schubert German Dances that Boulez recorded. There is also an even earlier very Romantic work ‘Im summerwind’ for orchestra and I suppose the concerto Op 24 for nine instruments. There was certainly room on this CD for at least a little more. Incidentally I am not going to say that at less than a fiver one shouldn’t complain because full length CDs as well high quality performances are an expectation and not an after-thought at any price.

To sum up then a fine CD with much to interest any music lover and very sensitively played.

Gary Higginson

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