The Viennese School - Teachers and Followers - Arnold Schoenberg- Berlin/Los Angeles
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951) Klavierstück, Op. 33a (1929/30) [2:35]; Klavierstück, Op. 33b (1931) [4:28]
Natalia PRAWOSSUDOWITSCH (1899-1988) Primitivi, Op. 17 (1926/27) [5:52]
Peter SCHACHT (1901-1945) Kinderstücke (c. 1940) [7:24]
Nikos SKALKOTTAS (1904-1949) Suite No. 3 (1940) [11:09]
Marc BLITZSTEIN (1905-1964) Sonata (1927) [7:38]
Erich SCHMID (1907-2000) Widmungen - fünf kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 9 (1933/35) [9:44]
Leon KIRCHNER (1919-2009) Little Suite (1949) [5:06]
Lou HARRISON (1917-2003) Sarabande (1937) [4:53]
John CAGE (1912-1992) Variations I [6:02]
Steffen Schleiermacher (piano)
rec. Ehem. Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Germany: 9 November 2007; 20 January, 17 November 2009. DDD

This release concludes the MDG series The Viennese School - Teachers and Followers featuring piano works by Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, and their pupils.

The piano music of Schoenberg and pupils has been allocated two volumes in the series. The first Schöenberg disc comprises music from his time teaching in Vienna. This latest issue is the second volume focusing on Berlin and later the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

During the first half of the twentieth century Schoenberg was a mainstay of the avant-garde composers of the Second Viennese school. The music was characterised by atonalism and the twelve-tone serial method. Schoenberg was fêted by a number of the more adventurous composers of the next generation who were enthusiastic to study with him in Vienna, Berlin and in the USA. Schoenberg taught in Berlin for three separate periods before the rise of National Socialism forced him to leave the city. During his exile in Los Angeles, he took a composition class at UCLA.

This MDG disc comprises ten piano works from nine different composers. The first scores are Schoenberg’s two Klavierstück. They are in the 12-tone method and were his last piano scores. Opus 33a is a muscular work from 1929/30 and the rhythmic and austere op. 33b was composed shortly after in 1931. It was at the suggestion of Glazunov that Natalia Prawossudowitsch in 1928 became a pupil of Schoenberg in Berlin. Prawossudowitsch’s Primitivi, Op. 17 is an accessible set of six tonal pieces that she wrote in 1926/27. Because they were composed prior to her time studying with Schoenberg I was puzzled why Primitivi was included here unless there were no other post-Schoenberg piano scores available. The first piece Vivo is darting and scurrying whilst the contrasting Pastorale is warmly relaxing. Number three, titled Foxtrot Grotesque is brisk and rhythmic again contrasting with the Espressivo pastoral, a gentle and meditative piece with two passages of increased weight and tempi. Number five Alla pastorale has the comforting character of a child’s nursery as distinct from the brisk and rhythmic final piece entitled Grotesque.

Another Berlin pupil of Schoenberg was Peter Schacht from the 1927/31 class. Initially sceptical of his pupil Schoenberg acknowledged how well Schacht had developed as a composer. The seven movement Kinderstücke was thought to have been composed in the 1940s. It commences with a grave and dark Kleiner Trauermarsch followed by a scuttling and leaping Ins Freie, an allegro. The third piece Hirtenweise is sad and meditative and contrasts with the confident and showy Erstes Sehnen. An Allegro energetic lasting just nineteen seconds, Trotzkopf is a headlong dash compared to the contemplative and ruminative Einsamkeit, marked Lento. Marked Majestoso, the piece Festlicher Ausgang provides a confident conclusion to the set.

Schoenberg spoke in glowing terms of Nikos Skalkottas’s ability as a member of the Berlin class of 1927/32. Skalkottas was a prolific composer during his Berlin period. From 1940 the Suite No. 3 includes a set of variations and a funeral march. In untitled sections the opening, a restless Minuetto, is followed by a simple plodding theme with a set of three agitated variations and a Coda. Continuing the unsettling mood the Marcia funebra is grave piece and the hurried Finale is full of unrest.

Marc Blitzstein was unfortunate to meet his death in Martinique after being attacked by sailors. He is mainly remembered today for The Airborne Symphony and a number of film-scores. Soon after his studies with Schoenberg in 1926/27 Blitzstein wrote his Sonata (1927) a single movement score in nine sections. Blitzstein said of the première his Sonata, “It was an angry, a thrilling piece. People didn’t know what is was about. They felt as uncomfortable as in hell.” Section I has a ‘hey, look at me’ almost egotistical character. No. II is appealing summery music followed by a No. III a rapid picture of confusion and then No. IV repetitious and highly unsettling. Piece No. V conveys a sense of exhaustion with all energy departed. The rapid sprint of No. VI precedes No. VII a depiction of achievement and confidence. No. VIII is a brief pause for breath before the final section so determined, vital full of thrills and spills.

The Swiss composer Erich Schmid spent a year in Schoenberg’s 1930 Berlin class. Schmid was already composing in the serial method even before he studied with Schoenberg. Composed in Switzerland in 1933/35 the set titled Widmungen (Dedications) - fünf kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 9 contains five sections each bearing dedications to friends and family, hence the name. With the exception of the two Schoenberg pieces Schmid’s Widmungen (Dedications) may prove the most difficult work on the disc. The opening Rigoroso section is notable for its austerity and impulsive rhythms followed by the section Äußerst ruhig und ausdrucksvoll mechanical with a touch of seriousness. The section marked Grazioso is brief and somewhat directionless before the Ruhig fließend which is generally calm with contrasting confused and distorted outbursts. Dedicated to his wife the concluding section marked Risoluto is steely and rhythmic with an undercurrent of brooding.

Leon Kirchner was a Schoenberg pupil in Los Angeles in 1938/42. Also studying with Ernest Bloch, Kirchner was not an advocate of Schoenberg’s serial music. From 1949 Kirchner’s Little Suite is designed in five sections opening with the rhythmic and agitated Prelude. The Song - an Andante - contains a sense of drifting as if looking for contentment and the Toccata is a grey piece percussive in style. I enjoyed the bold Fantasy punctuated with violent stabbing thrusts. Marked Andante the Epilogue could well be a depiction of gathering calm moving toward a state of peace.

Another of Schoenberg’s UCLA pupils was Lou Harrison in 1942/43. It seems that Schoenberg was highly impressed with Harrison’s Sarabande a score composed in 1937 before his time with Schoenberg. For this reason I wondered why this was included as there are a number of other piano scores that Harrison composed post-Schoenberg. In the single movement Sarabande a feeling of loneliness and wandering predominates with two episodes of a tougher more robust stamp.

The final work is from John Cage who studied with Schoenberg in 1935/37 at UCLA. Chosen to represent Cage is Variations I an undated experimental score lasting six minutes. It is hard to find the words to describe Variations I - suffice to say it is an intriguing piece that presented me with a considerable and enthralling listening challenge.

Steffen Schleiermacher has been a stalwart pianist throughout this enterprising MDG series. This is extremely well presented with crystal clear sound quality and Schleiermacher’s essay is interesting and highly informative.

Michael Cookson

This release concludes the MDG series The Viennese School - Teachers and Followers featuring piano works by Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, and their pupils.