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
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
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.
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!
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
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,
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
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