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Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
The Music of Anton Webern: Volume 1
Symphony Op. 21 (1928) [10:03]; Five Canons for soprano and two clarinets Op. 16 (1924) [3:41]; Three Traditional Rhymes Op. 17 (1924) [2:33]; Three Songs Op. 18 (1925) [3:59]; Trio Op. 20 (1927) [9:49]; Quartet Op. 22 (1930) [5:28]; Variations for Piano Op. 27 (1936) [6:00]; Six Pieces for Large Orchestra Op. 6 [Revised Version] (1910) [13:08]; Four Pieces for violin and piano Op. 7 (1910) [5:42]; Three Pieces for cello and piano Op. 11 (1910) [2:27]; Concerto for Nine Instruments Op. 24 (1934) [6:52]; Schubert orch. Webern: German Dances [9:29]
Jennifer Welch-Babidge (soprano), Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble (Op. 21), Philharmonia Orchestra (Op. 6 and German Dances), Robert Craft (conductor).
Recorded July 2002 at The Coliseum, Watford, England (Op. 21, Op. 6 and German Dances), and 2003-2004 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York. DDD
NAXOS 8.557530 [79:12]

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For those with short attention spans, your composer is here. Indeed, the longest uninterrupted track on this recording is the first movement of the Symphony, at a monumental seven minutes and thirty-one seconds. Years ago I had the pleasure of hearing every scrap of Webern’s work in a single week, during the Focus! Festival at the Juilliard School in New York, and Webern is one of the few composers with the kind of concentrated output that would make such a survey even possible. I am happy to report that this excellent recording contains an extremely generous program (almost 80 minutes) of some of Webern’s most inspired output, in outstanding performances.

I just heard the short Symphony a few weeks ago with James Levine and the Met Orchestra, and this one is presented faster, more flowing – probably more to most listeners’ taste – and the Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble dispatches it with lustrous assurance. With quiet relentlessness, Robert Craft makes the first movement glisten, with notes dropping like pebbles into a pond. The second movement’s "Variations" are short – eight of them in under three minutes – and since Craft takes great pains to be faithful to Webern’s tempi markings, he writes that "…this may be the first to realize the music as it was intended to be heard."

Jennifer Welch-Babidge is perfectly suited to the Five Canons, and very well recorded. The last "Crucem tuam adoramus" ("We worship Thy Cross") is one of the shortest tracks on the CD, and offers 29 seconds of sheer delight, ending with "Venit gaudium in universo mundo" ("Joy has come to the whole world") – joy indeed, in a performance as luminous as this one. Charles Neidich and Michael Lowenstern are the agile clarinetists who complete the picture. The Three Traditional Rhymes are also charming, with some stratospheric leaps, albeit delicate ones, and the Three Songs that follow only add to Welch-Babidge’s expert singing with some beautiful work by Mr. Neidich on piccolo clarinet and Scott Kuney on guitar.

The Trio is done with romantic sweetness, and the Academy of Arts and Letters acoustic adds clarity and warmth to what could seem chilly in other hands. Notable is the second movement ("Sehr getragen und ausdrucksvoll") whose restless tide is particularly well-realized by the players Ani Kavafian on violin, Richard O’Neill on viola and cellist Fred Sherry. Unusual forces define the Quartet, scored for violin, clarinet, piano and tenor saxophone, with Daniel Goble offering expert work on the latter. I especially liked the work in the second movement – witty, jazzy, with the four players almost squawking at each other. The three Variations for piano total just six minutes, and show the impressive Christopher Oldfather at his pointillistic best. And the brief Four Pieces for Violin and Piano and Three Pieces for Cello and Piano offer (to quote from Mr. Craft’s notes) "…conciseness and concentration of expression [that] are unprecedented." Jesse Mills (violin) and Mr. Sherry respectively, each accompanied by Mr. Oldfather, make the best possible case for these miniatures.

With the famous Six Pieces for Large Orchestra, one immediately senses the change in venue to the massive Watford space, site of many superb recordings including this one. The Philharmonia are in fine form, and allow me to praise them for their playing in the second movement right off the bat. Attention is always focused on the dramatic fourth-movement funeral march, but Craft makes the others equally compelling. That march opens with one of the most chilling percussion sequences ever conceived, with the rest of the ensemble seemingly struggling to make their voices heard, until at about the three-minute mark, the snare drum begins its fateful tread to the movement’s shockingly abrupt conclusion. This is an amazing reading, a cauldron of pent-up, overflowing grief. Again, I’m most familiar with Levine’s work in these pieces, as well as the ultra-refined version from Herbert von Karajan years ago, but Craft encourages greater urgency, an approach that might be likelier to persuade those disinclined toward the composer.

In the same vein, the classic Concerto is nicely done, with a spunky first movement, a lazily flowing second, and precise playing in the insistent march of the last. The German Dances will probably come as a mild shock, following the rest of the program. Schubert composed them in 1824, but the manuscript was not rediscovered until 1930, when Webern was inspired to arrange it for chamber orchestra. The result is six lovely works that never betray their early nineteenth-century origin, but sparkle anew, as if glimpsed through some high-definition lens by Webern’s expert polishing.

Bruce Hodges

see also review by Colin Clarke


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