These ground-breaking works have not been presented by Dabringhaus und Grimm in chronological order. Still, it’s worth listening to the disc beginning with the 1894 pieces. In that way you will be taken on a journey from tonality, through atonality and into serialism; yes the latter two are different.
I possess a disc from 1992 on Harmonia Mundi (Musique d’Abord) which might still be available (HMA 190752). The pianist was Claude Helffer and the disc lays claim to being the ‘complete piano works’. It is beautifully played and recorded but oddly enough does not include the three pieces of 1894 and presents the separate pieces within each opus within a single track. Nevertheless it does use a fine modern piano.
Hardy Rittner uses here a Streicher instrument of 1870 for the earlier pieces then a 1901 Steinway for Op. 23 onwards; these are discussed in the booklet. Whilst the Steinway is a beautiful instrument the Streicher I am less keen on as its tone does not seem to be as rich and lyrical as I feel the earlier works need.
The Three Pieces of 1894
, written before Schoenberg even began lessons with Zemlinsky, are Brahmsian, and it must be remembered that Schoenberg lectured and wrote on Brahms throughout his life. He also went to the trouble of orchestrating Brahms’ huge Piano Quartet in G minor. Of these three pieces the third, marked Presto
, is the most interesting harmonically and points forwards to the First String Quartet of ten years later.
The Three Pieces Op. 11
broke new ground. There is an extraordinary sense of spontaneity about them especially the last. Whereas the first piece has something approaching a simple melody barely harmonised at the start, the second has a rolling minor-third ostinato figure. The last, which is notated partially on three staves, is just a wild orgy of notes without obvious logic except that supplied by the composer’s own imagination. Perhaps, like Stravinsky after ‘Le Sacre’, Schoenberg realized, with some horror that he could now go anywhere and do anything. Apart from harmonic innovations these pieces include silently held chords (Piece 1, bars 14-16) which sound, if you can hear them, as harmonics. He also asks for both pedals to be held down at once (Piece 2, bar 38) and there are also other colouristic experiments. These pieces make a wonderful fantasy - a creative world which Schoenberg never recaptured.
The concept that an artist can “express a novel in a single serious gesture, a joy in a single breath” - (to quote Hartmut Fladt’s very useful booklet notes in which he quotes Schoenberg), had been much admired by Webern. It is reflected in the brief ‘Bagatelles’ Op. 9 for string quartet. It was further essayed by Schoenberg himself in his ‘Five Orchestral Pieces’ Op. 16 of 1909. The ‘Six Little Pieces’ Op. 19
for piano are appropriately aphoristic. Rather annoyingly in this recording the engineers have made far too long a gap between these delicate and often very quiet gestures. Helffer is rather more romantic in the first piece which is quite appropriate, but Rittner captures the moods of each quite beautifully. The music’s brevity acts as the direct antithesis of the vast canvases of Mahler and for that matter of Schoenberg himself - for instance his ‘Pelleas und Melisande’ of less than a decade before. The language is still bi-tonal or pantonal but he was by then developing his twelve-tone system and attempting to impose some sort of order in his creative life. It wasn’t until after the First World War that we find the ‘method’ fully formed as here in the Five Pieces Op. 23
which appeared slowly between 1916 and 1923. This is an important set because the fifth piece ‘Waltzer’ constitutes the composer’s first strictly dodecaphonic page. The notes talk about a Bachian influence in the three-part writing of No. 1 and a Brahmsian one in No. 3. It is even said that No. 4 has “allusions to Ragtime and quick-step” which sadly elude me. It is the singing quality of several passages which shines though in this performance. That lyric strand was something which Daniel Barenboim mentioned in his lecture-performance - which I just happened to hear on BBC Radio 3 - on the notorious Orchestral Variations
written just a few years later.
Almost mitigating the ‘shock of the new’ the Suite Op. 25
- also a twelve-tone work – uses titles like ‘Gavotte’, ‘Minuet’ and ‘Gigue’. This takes us back into a neo-classical world which at that time (1923) had been successfully adopted by Stravinsky and others. In the Suite Schoenberg does not use the rows too strictly. There are many passages with rhythmically repeated patterns corresponding (almost) to the dance rhythms. Rittner is brilliant in this piece bringing out the humour, yes humour, in the ‘Musette’, following ‘Gavotte’ and then in the quick-fire ‘Gigue’ which rounds the set off.
By the time he reached the skittish Two Pieces Op
(c.1930) Schoenberg had honed his serial technique. The first is the shortest and one notes in the score how the first bar comprises of three chords of four notes each covering all twelve tones. The second bar likewise of three chords is the retrograde inversion. This constitutes part of the first theme as it were. There is then a flowing semiquaver second subject, followed by a development of about 8 bars from bar 14. The recap has the chords used in broken form. The last six bars serve as an epilogue or coda. The second piece, which is more tonal in a loose sense, can also be seen as a succinct sonata-form. And the Steinway Grand of 1901 is ideal for this music having a mellifluous tone and neat attack.
The German pianist Hardy Rittner was a name new to me and is still under 30. He is especially interested in the ‘early piano’ and has been a pupil of Paul Badura-Skoda well known for his Haydn as well as other things. In 2009 Rittner received the ECHO Klassik prize of the German music industry as ‘Young Newcomer of the Year”. His approach to Schoenberg is fresh, technically totally reliable and sensitive to the romantic nuances as well as to the bold new musical concepts the composer espoused.
The disc is worth searching out and is, as ever with this label, beautifully presently with good notes and photographs.