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Anton von WEBERN (1883-1945)
The Music of Anton Webern: Volume 1

Symphony, Op21a (1929) [10’03]; Five Canons on Latin Texts, Op. 16b (1924) [3’41]; Drei Volkstexte, Op. 17b (1925) [2’33]; Three Songs, Op. 18b (1923-25) [3’59]; String Trio, Op. 20c (1926/7) [9’49]; Quartet, Op. 22d (1928-30) [5’28]; Variations, Op. 27e (1936) [6’00]; Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6a (1909, rev; 1928) [13’08]; Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7f (1910) [5’42]; Three Pieces for Cello and Piano, Op. 11g (1914) [2’27]; Concerto for Nine Instruments, Op. 24h (1931-34) [6’52]; Deutsche Tänzea (Schubert, 1824, orch Webern 1932) [9’29];
bJennifer Welch-Babidge (soprano); cAni Kavafian, dJennifer Frautschi, fJesse Mills, hSunghae Anna Lim (violins); chRichard O’Neill (viola); cgFred Sherry (cello); dDaniel Goble (tenor saxophone); hDavid Fedele (flute); hStephen Taylor (oboe); dMichael Lowenstern, hCharles Neidich (clarinets); hWilliam Purvis (horn); hJames Pugh (trombone); dfgChristopher Oldfather, hStephen Gosling (pianos); abTwentieth Century Classics Ensemble,
Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Craft.
Rec. aThe Coliseum, Watford, in July 2002, b-hAmerican Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, in 2003/4. DDD
Texts and translations included.
The Robert Craft Collection
NAXOS 8.557530 [79’12]


Robert Craft’s association with the works of Webern goes back a long way. Here are his most recent thoughts on the Master’s opus along with a large selection of chamber and vocal works for small forces. This is announced as Volume 1 of the complete Webern – I shall be watching the remainder with keen interest.

The Symphony kicks things off. At just over ten minutes it is, for this composer, of near-Wagnerian length. The hushed first movement is almost reverential here, shifting and mysterious. The good recording ensures all is audible, and helps convey the supreme confidence of the second movement finale.

The interspersing of the larger-scored pieces with smaller, more intimate works is a strong point in the disc’s favour – a straight-through listen is a pleasure when programmed like this. So the juxtaposing of the Symphony with the Five Canons for soprano and two clarinets means a complementary move to more intimate climes.

Jennifer Welch-Babidge is the soprano for this disc, described in her bio as a ‘singer-actress’. She is fairly expressive in the Five Canons, Op. 16, but the latent expression in Webern’s disjunct larger intervals can certainly be more beautifully rendered than here, Welch-Babidge’s voice being just that little bit too timbrally thin. She is better in the Volktexte, Op. 17, for soprano, violin, clarinet and bass clarinet, especially the hyper-delicate final movement.

The Songs, Op. 18 are scored characterfully for soprano, piccolo clarinet and guitar; Pierre Boulez must have loved these! The beauty of these songs - and their performance here - is one of the highlights of this disc. To move to the famous Op. 20 String Trio is a smooth journey. Craft describes Op. 20 as ‘one of his [Webern’s] greatest creations’, without actually saying why. There is indeed a purity here; the sweet tone of Ani Kavafian’s violin certainly helps. There is also a real feeling of chamber-music. The more abrasive second movement works in good contrast.

Allegedly, the Op. 22 Quartet (tenor saxophone, violin, clarinet and piano) is ‘widely recognised as the "coolest" music Webern ever wrote’ (Craft), although no explanation of this statement is given. Presumably it refers to the inclusion of a sax? Actually the sound of the sax used in these surroundings takes on a whole new meaning. Although the second movement dances, surely it is closer to the finale of the Op. 24 Concerto than to cool jazz?

Christopher Oldfather’s account of the Variations, while not rivalling the sovereign Pollini (DG), is interesting for the way in which the intimacy of the first movement invites the listener in. The second movement dances, but possibly the highlight of Oldfather’s interpretation is the way the finale dies away into silence.

The longest single work on this disc is the Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6. Having an orchestra of the Philharmonia’s calibre at one’s disposal guarantees a certain confidence in execution. Craft finds a good deal of warmth in this score, that Boulez can at times eschew. The Funeral March (the fourth movement) is absolutely hypnotic, certainly having me hanging on every note. The climax is highly impressive, the recording coping well with the onslaught. I like Craft’s description of the muted tuba notes of the final movement ‘floating up like bubbles from the bottom of a tank’.

Craft cites a rather surface description of the Op. 7 in his notes, but does not accredit his quote. The performance is masterly however. Jesse Mills and Oldfather clearly worked hard on ever micro-nuance. Fully fitting that the Op. 11 cello pieces should follow, the logical continuation of the supremely terse mode of expression that Op. 7 offers. Fred Sherry finds almost Romantic expression in the brief second piece (0’24) while maintaining the intensity throughout. Oldfather is once again a responsive accompanist.

The (in)famous Concerto is given a dedicated performance. Very confidently despatched, this is clearly seen as ‘pure’ Webern. Dovetailing and conversing between instruments is deftly done, the rarefied atmosphere of the slow movement well sustained. All this makes the barely-disguised rudeness of the finale all the more shocking. Try the sudden coming together at 0’15, which is played up for all it is worth. Excellent.

The decision to follow the Concerto with Webern’s arrangements of Schubert is one I remain unsure of. These are the most famous of Webern’s arrangements. I have yet to hear his arrangements of three Schubert Piano Sonatas for small orchestra that Craft alludes to in his notes, apparently made a decade prior to these dances. Suffice to say that the Dances are affectionately moulded in Craft’s hands.

The standard of performance on this disc is very high, the care always evident.. Do investigate.

Colin Clarke

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