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American Fantasies: Arnold Schoenberg and American Music
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) Phantasy for Violin with Piano accompaniment, Op.47 (1949) [9:51]
John Cage (1912-1992) Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard (1950) [12:20]
Gunther Schuller (b.1925) Recitative and Rondo (1954) [14:59]
Donald Harris (b.1931) Fantasy for Violin and Piano (1955) [8:18]
Leon Kirchner (b. 1919) For Solo Violin (World Premiere Recording) (1985) [9:20] Duo No.2 for Violin and Piano (2001) [15:56]
Jean Coulthard (1908-2000) Day-Dream (World Premiere Recording) (1970) [1:33]
Hasse Borup (violin); Mary Kathleen Ernst (piano)
rec. 20 December 2006 and 3-9 January 2007, National Slovenian Radio in Ljubljana. DDD
CENTAUR CRC 2918 [72:19]

Experience Classicsonline

I am perhaps not the best person to review this CD. I can still remember my late father pontificating on what he regarded as chamber music and how it was ‘long haired’. We were listening to a programme on Radio Three and I recall a piece (composer unknown) for clarinet and piano. It was ‘nobutt’ clicks and squeaks and rattle of mechanism. The programme announcer suggested that the performers could play the piece in any order at any speed and with any dynamics. It was dire. Now my father, alas, judged all chamber music as being like that – and his especial approbation was reserved for Arnold Schoenberg. I do not know why. It was just one of those irrational hates. Although I am a little more ‘catholic’ in my tastes than my late father I still have some sympathy with the view that some of Arnold’s music leaves a lot to be desired. I am not convinced how much the art of music can be controlled by sums. Yet two things have mellowed my view over the years – firstly, it was the discovery of the early Schoenberg – the Pelleas and Melisande and Verklarte Nacht. These are great works in a largely romantic style and can be seen as lying in a trajectory of Wagner and Brahms. And secondly, over the years I have learnt to understand that serialism can be applied more or less strictly. The Berg Violin Concerto, for example is far removed from the Webern Five Pieces for orchestra. Humphrey Searle and Richard Stoker use the medium with lyrical creativity.

I guess that the ‘average’ listener does not usually associate Schoenberg with American music, as such. It is assumed that he is fundamentally a Viennese composer who did his ‘best’ work in that city. It is well known that he emigrated to America in 1933 and subsequently lived in Los Angles for over 20 years. However, it is not ‘household knowledge’ that some of his greatest works were composed during the American years – the Violin Concerto, the Fourth String Quartet and the Piano Concerto.

Dr. Christian Meyer writes that Schoenberg’s teaching methods changed when he arrived in the ‘States’: he found the general standard of musical knowledge of his new students left a lot to be desired. So in order to remedy this deficiency he focused on the so-called classics of Bach, Beethoven … and Brahms. This, he hoped, would give his pupils a solid foundation in music. Apparently he rarely taught the ‘twelve tone method’ to his pupils – even those who were deemed to be ‘advanced’. Finally Dr. Meyer suggests that perhaps Schoenberg’s reluctance to teach the ‘twelve tone method’ resulted from a realisation that "it now appeared to be but one of several ways of dealing with the breakdown of tonality". Previously, Schoenberg had imagined that his system was the only logical way forward.

The Phantasy for Violin and Piano Op.47 is one of the composer’s last works and to my ear pretty much hard work. It does not merit the approbation of my late father’s "grinding and scraping" but it is certainly not an easy work to love. It seems disjointed and unnecessarily fragmented. Yet there are many lyrical moments and certainly some nods in the direction of classical and baroque models. There is a strange beauty about it that would perhaps make it a good starting point for listeners who wish to explore some of Schoenberg’s terser statements.

Interestingly the sleeve-notes argue that it is a good "starting point for a chronological exploration of Schoenberg’s influence on American music". It is certainly interesting to see how some of his followers’ pieces seem to excel that of the master. But that is perhaps the mark of a great teacher!

Let us dive straight into this CD. The John Cage is a minor revelation. He is a composer to whom I rarely listen. Yet these Six Melodies written in 1950 have a haunting beauty about them that seems to typify the American scene. It is as much an evocation of the United States as Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. There is a complexity about this music that seems to rise out of its innate simplicity: it is music that is at one and the same time easy to come to terms with yet requires repeated hearings. Truly enigmatic, but also quite beautiful. I amazed myself!

Gunther Schuller is another composer who is a closed book to me. Yet a quick look on the Arkiv site reveals some fifty recordings of his music. I guess that he is just not a name the crops up outside the USA. He is an eclectic composer who has worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet. The programme notes inform us that Schuller has written more that 160 original compositions in virtually every musical genre. The present work, Recitative and Rondo, was conceived after Schuller had acted as a page-turner during a performance of Schoenberg’s Phantasy – so here at least there is a direct line back to the exemplar! However there is a stronger sense of the ‘romantic’ about this piece than in the Phantasy.

It was Donald Harris who arranged to send me this CD – and I am grateful to him for allowing me to explore a range of music that is far removed from that of my usual ‘beat’ – the English Musical Renaissance. Harris’s relationship with the G.O.M. is by way of Max Deutsch, who was a devoted disciple. Interestingly, he also studied with Lukas Foss, Ross Lee Finney, André Jolivet and Nadia Boulanger.

The programme notes suggest that the present Fantasy was not directly inspired by Schoenberg’s Phantasy yet this work is written in a ‘strict serial style’. It is perhaps an object lesson in how musical such a work can actually be. Harris writes about his Fantasy, "I had intended to write a short composition for the violin of a virtuoso nature. Its structure was to be compact in spite of the rather free nature of the fantasy form." Harris continues his comments with an attempt at putting the work into the context of his subsequent compositions. He states that "the rudiments of my mature style are, I believe, in evidence. To my mind there is a feeling of stylistic continuity generated in part by a dual interest in textural variety and contrapuntal interplay, an interest, if you will, that has continued to develop in later works…" It is interesting to note that this Fantasy was the composer’s first published work.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable piece that deserves to be in the repertoire and is an excellent introduction to the composer’s style. Donald Harris is presently writing his Second Symphony as a Koussevitzky Foundation commission. I look forward to hearing this work.

Leon Kirchner was raised in Los Angeles and studied with Arnold Schoenberg, Ernest Bloch and Roger Sessions. For many years he combined teaching at Harvard, giving piano recitals and his main love, writing music.

The fascinating For Solo Violin is a longish work lasting some nine minutes: it was commissioned by Joseph Gingold for the 1986 Indianapolis International Violin Festival Competition. This is a work that is strangely timeless – it does not seem to be in a direct line from Schoenberg’s Phantasy. In fact, it is a highly lyrical and emotionally charged piece. In some ways it owes more to Bach than to the Second Viennese School.

The longest work on this CD is Kirchner’s Duo No.2 for Violin and Piano which was written in 2001 and is dedicated to Felix Galimir. This is a fantastic piece that exploits the resources of the fiddle and piano to the limits. Even on a single hearing, it reveals much of its content and it is easy to see it as a masterpiece. As a composition it has moved on considerably from the terse and frankly disjointed sound-scape of the Schoenberg Phantasy. This is a well constructed work that is both entertaining and moving. One can ask nothing more of a piece of music.

Jean Coulthard was a Canadian composer who, interestingly, studied with Ralph Vaughan Williams. I confess to not having heard of her and hence none of her scores. Yet the word on the street is that she is one of Canada’s most important composers from the second half of the 20th century. Certainly she is only patchily represented in the CD catalogues. Coulthard was also a student of Aaron Copland, Bela Bartók and Schoenberg. I am not in a position to judge the present Day-dream with the rest of her catalogue. However it is a lovely little piece that seemingly owes little to the dodecaphonic music of her one-time mentor. Very simple, tonal and in ABA form.

All the pieces are played with great enthusiasm and what seems to me to be perfect technique. This is a landmark CD that explores works which may not be well-known to the majority of listeners – yet every single one of them deserves a hearing and ought to be part of the repertoire of soloists in the States and Europe. This is an exciting and instructive opportunity to explore music that may normally be a closed book to many music lovers. It deserves every success.

John France


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