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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Serenade Op. 24 (1923) [33:13] *
Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 (1928) **
Bach Orchestrations: Fuga (St Anne) [5:55]; Schmiicke dich, O liebe Seele [5:33]; Komm, Gott Schopfer, heiliger Geist [2:24] **
Stephen Varcoe (bass); Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble (Charles Neidich (clarinet), Alan R. Kay (bass clarinet), Peter Press (mandolin), David Starobin (guitar), Rolf Schulte (violin), Toby Appel (viola), Fred Sherry (cello))/Robert Craft *; Philharmonia Orchestra/Robert Craft **
rec. 10 January 1994, Master Sound Astoria Studios, New York (Serenade); July, October 1998, Abbey Road Studio One, London. DDD
NAXOS 8.557522 [67:54]

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, in 1922.

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!

Em Marshall


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