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The Viennese School: Teachers and Followers - Volume 1: Anton Webern
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Variations, Op. 27 (1936) [7’52].
Stefan WOLPE (1902-1972)
Zemach-Suite (1939) [15’38].
Philipp HERSCOVICI (1906-1989)
Frühlingsblumen (1947) [0’50]. Drei Klavierstücke (c 1960) [4’24].
Leopold SPINNER (1903-1980)
Piano Sonata, Op. 3 (1942/5) [7’16].
Fré FOCKE (1910-1989)
Tombeau de Vincent van Gogh (1951) [13’50].
Arnold ELSTON (1907-1971)
Rondo (1937) [4’13].
Roland LEICH (1911-1995)
Pastorale (1938) [2’21].
Humphrey SEARLE (1915-1982)
Threnos and Toccata, Op. 14 (1948) [8’48].
Steffan Schleiermacher (piano).
Rec. Fürstliche Reitbahn Bad Arolsen on December 6th-8th, 2002. DDD




Steffan Schleiermacher has championed the lesser-known byroads of twentieth-century music like few others ... although in fairness the UK’s own Ian Pace springs to mind. With a typically stimulating mix of probing intellect and an enthusiasm that shines through his polished playing, Schleiermacher here embarks on an investigation of the Webern volume of his series, ‘The Viennese School: Teachers & Followers’. I note MD&G do not use the more accepted ‘Second Viennese School’; I wonder why not?

Schleiermacher provides his own booklet notes. Unsurprisingly informed, they give valuable background to the lesser-known names on the play-sheet. The handing down of knowledge from teacher to pupil and on, in turn, to further pupils of pupils, resulted in a dissemination in which the ties to the original aesthetics are progressively loosened. Of course there is the problem of who exactly were these pupils, given that some only came under Webern’s tutelage for a period as brief only a few weeks.

The launch-pad of this disc is the Webern Variations of 1936. Schleiermacher is very intimate and soft-toned in the first movement, preferring to emphasise the line in this music. The attack of the second movement is somewhat blunted by the resonant acoustic, alas. This is a shame made even more severe when one considers the expressive final movement – true inter-movement contrast would have truly made this performance. Pollini (DG), is the benchmark here, his clarity absolutely crystalline.

Stefan Wolpe was only a Webern pupil for about four months; Webern taught him for free! His Zemach-Suite was written for the Russian dancer Benjamin Zemach. Its seven movements include two fugues based on maqamat – Arabian scale-forms. The first movement (‘Song’) is almost jazzy; a pity the penultimate movement (‘Complaint’, 5’20) is a bit over-long for its material.

The Romanian composer Philipp Herscovici (also known as Filip Gershkovich) was taught by Berg in 1928, then by Webern from 1935. His was not a charmed life – most of it was on the run, and on the day of his scheduled conducting debut the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and he was forced to flee!  Unsurprisingly most of his works are lost. The brief Frühlingsblumen (‘Spring Flowers’) is quite heavily Webern influenced, yet has a real playfulness about it. The Drei Klavierstücke moves from the Waltz through a Lento processional to a staccato, playful, almost Prokofiev-like finale.

Leopold Spinner studied with Webern from 1935 to 1938, emigrating to England in 1939. His Piano Sonata, Op. 3 is a revision of some piano works he wrote some three years previously. The mode of expression is acerbic in the first movement (‘Moderato’) while the second movement moves towards the jaunty. The finale feels hesitant initially, before moving to firmer ground.

Fré Focke studied initially with Willem Pijper in Amsterdam before moving to Vienna in 1941 to study with Webern. His Tombeau de Vincent van Gogh is a succession of twenty movements, each inspired by a van Gogh paining. Only three movements last over a minute and Webernian concision is marked in the almost aphoristic nature of the writing. Yet there is jazz there, too (Nos. 1 and 5 for example), Prokofiev and a final movement that moves towards clusters in the lower part of the piano. There is much contrast within these movements; try between the cheeky No. 7 and the elusive No. 8, a sort of Expressionist Debussy. Stimulating.

Arnold Elston was an American pupil of Webern (from 1932-35); Richard Leich was likewise American and studied around the same period (1933/4). Elston only wrote one work for solo piano – this one, a Rondo with a jerky, determined theme that possesses no small amount of internal energy. Leich’s Pastorale - one could easily guess the title from the musical surface alone - is, on the other hand, almost twee.

Humphrey Searle is one of the more famous names on display here. He studied with Webern for six months in 1937. His Threnos and Toccata, Op. 14 (one track) is magnificent. The Threnos has a real sense of the gargantuan in its sad, oscillating tenor/bass line. A Threnody is sung in memory of the dead, hence the prevailing atmosphere. The Toccata is much briefer than its partner - 1’38 as opposed to seven minutes - and is an appropriately dynamic way with which to close.

This is a disc of great value. Most certainly students of twentieth-century piano music and of the Second Viennese School should avail themselves of this without delay. But such is his dedication, Schleiermacher succeeds in making this a highly stimulating journey, too. Dabringhaus & Grimm’s production standards are, as always, of the very highest.

Colin Clarke




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