A good selection of Schoenberg works here receive excellent performances
on this Naxos release under Robert Craft’s expert direction. The disc is
Volume 4 of the Music of Arnold Schoenberg in the Robert Craft Collection.
Serenade contains some excellent ensemble playing, vibrant and lively, with
an exuberant first movement March and a moving Sonnet by Petrarch, where the
deeply impassioned words and lovely picture-painting (the lion’s roar,
for example) come across well in Varcoe’s typically gorgeously rich,
dark timbre. The Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble imbue Dance Steps, with
its prominent mandolin part, with a great sense of fun. Overall this is a brilliant
performance of a rather difficult work.
Schoenberg’s development of the twelve-tone method reached its maturity
in Variations. It was written as something of a homage to Bach, and uses the
BACH motif - first heard in the introduction and then in the second and fifth
variation before it comes to dominate the finale. Schoenberg said that it was
his aim to “resurrect an old classicism in order to make a new one possible”,
and this work includes some wonderful counterpoint in the second variation.
Again, it is fiendishly difficult to play, given the inclusion of the challenge
to string players to play in the range above their own – the double bass
playing the cello range, the cello the viola’s, the viola the violin’s,
and the violins an octave higher than usual. The Philharmonia cope wonderfully
well, however, with excellently incisive, precise and lively playing, which
Craft neither drives too fast nor allows to lose momentum.
In 1928 Schoenberg transcribed for orchestra a triple fugue in E flat by Bach.
This was in the same year that he composed the Variations; it is fascinating
to compare the two very different, but both Bach-influenced, works. The Fugue
was first conducted by Webern. The two Choral Preludes, Schmicke dich, O liebe
Seele and Komm, Gott Schopfer, heiliger Geist, were transcribed six years earlier,
There is a beautifully luminous sound to the Fuga, and the Philharmonia capture
the serenity at the beginning very well. The end of the work is given a gloriously
full and radiant sound. The choral preludes are very grandiose and the performance
here reflects that. Yet whatever one feels about these orchestrations - and
they are a little too overblown, brash and unsubtle for my purist ear! - they
are certainly well performed.
A disc I can certainly recommend to any lovers of Schoenberg!