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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



20th CENTURY CLASSICS – VOLUME 2
CD 1 [74:40]
Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874 – 1951)

Chamber Symphony No.1 Op.9 (1906, rev. 1922)
Chamber Symphony No.2 Op.38 (1939)
Verklärte Nacht Op.4 (1899)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Heinz Holliger
CD 2 [36:58]
Samuel BARBER (1910 – 1981)

Serenade for Strings Op.1 (1929)
Irving FINE (1914 – 1962)

Serious Song (1955)
Eliott CARTER (born 1908)

Elegy (1943)
David DIAMOND (born 1915)

Rounds (1944)
Los Angeles Chamber orchestra; Paul Shure, director
CD 3 [66:25]
Béla BARTÓK (1881 – 1945)

Concerto for Orchestra Sz.116 (1943)
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913 – 1994)

Concerto for Orchestra (1954)
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra; Sir Andrew Davis
CD 4 [43:48]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908 – 1992)

Quatuor pour la fin du Temps (1941)
Eduard Brunner (clarinet); Trio Fontenay (Wolf harden, piano; Michael Mücke, violin; Niklas Schmidt, cello)
Recorded: CD 1 (Casino Zogernitz, Vienna, June 1989 and Teldec Studio, Berlin, September 1992); CD 2 (no information); CD 3 (Stockholm Concert Hall, February and March 1996) and CD 4 (WDR Studio, Cologne, September 1991)
APEX 0927 49421-2

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Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht Op.4, either in its original version for string sextet or in the transcription for string orchestra made in 1943 by the composer, is probably one of his best-known works. Inspired by a somewhat outdated poem by Dehmel, this work is still in a fairly traditional Romantic, though chromatic idiom with a direct appeal. It is a clear example of early Schönberg, fairly accessible (probably more so in the orchestral version), richly melodic and lushly scored. By contrast, the First Chamber Symphony for chamber orchestra is a more compact, tightly argued, more austere piece of music written as a reaction (or an antidote) to the many large-scale Romantic works that have preceded it such as Mahler’s Eighth Symphony or even Schönberg’s own Gurrelieder. It is in five concise movements with many thematic cross-references. In the wake of this work, Schönberg started composing a Second Chamber Symphony as early as 1906, worked on it intermittently but completing it only in 1939 (hence the opus number). Originally planned as a three-movement piece, it was eventually published as a two-movement torso (the last movement remained in short score). Heinz Holliger conducts virile, no-nonsense readings that I find most appealing.

American Music for Strings. The second CD in the present set offers an interesting, albeit rather ungenerous selection of American string music. Barber is, interestingly enough, represented by his rarely heard, youthful Serenade for Strings Op.1 written in the late 1920s which already displays Barber’s inborn lyricism. Carter, too, is represented by one of his earliest works, the Elegy of 1943 that also exists in a version for string quartet (recorded by the Arditti Quartet; there are other versions as well) and that is a clear example of Carter’s early Neo-classicism. Irving Fine’s music is too rarely heard, if at all, and here is a good example of his music, the deeply felt elegiac Serious Song, a commission from the Louisville Orchestra. Finally, Diamond’s Rounds, composed in 1944, is one of his best-known pieces though it does not enjoy the popularity it deserves. In spite of its shamefully short playing time, this CD is probably the most appealing of the whole set, were it only for the rarities it offers.

Bartók’s and Lutosławski’s concertos for orchestra are quite popular works. Both have often been recorded and both have shared the same disc. They actually have much in common and Lutosławski’s admiration for Bartók is well known. Lutosławski’s is, I think, the finest of the two for Bartók’s piece, written during the difficult American years, is not his finest achievement in spite of the many outstanding moments. On the whole, it is too long, too heavily scored and somewhat uneven; but it was – and is still is – an important work in that it renewed Bartók’s compositional powers. (It was actually followed by the masterly Sonata for Solo Violin written for Menuhin.) Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra is the culmination of the composer’s Neo-classical, folk-inspired period. It cleverly uses Polish folk songs woven into a rather complex fabric. Its first performance was an immediate success (no wonder!) and the work has remained his most popular work since. Sir Andrew Davis conducts a particularly fine reading of Lutosławski’s work. His reading of Bartók’s concerto is quite satisfying in its own right, although there may be more distinguished readings of it available.

Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du Temps was composed when the composer was a prisoner-of-war in Germany and was first performed at Stalag VIIIA in Görlitz with the composer at the piano. This must have been a quite rare happening besides the several performances of Krasa’s Brundibar in Theresin. As is often the case with Messiaen, the music reflects the composer’s religious concerns and evokes, in Messiaen’s own idiosyncratic fashion, words from The Revelation of St. John. This substantial score is quintessential Messiaen whose main hallmarks, melodic, rhythmic and harmonic as well, are all present throughout, even at this comparatively early stage of his composing career. Not having heard this work for a very long time, I was delighted to hear it again, in a wonderfully committed performance by Brunner and his colleagues of the Trio Fontenay.

All in all, this is a fine and welcome compilation. The only problem, though, with similar releases, is that you may already have some of these pieces on disc; but you need not hesitate to get this boxed set if you do not know these pieces, some of which are absolute 20th Century classics.

Hubert Culot


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