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 Inspired by a somewhat outdated poem by Dehmel,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.