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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Three pieces, Op.11 [15.13]
Six little pieces, Op.19 [5.22]
Five pieces, Op.23 [11.55]
Suite, Op.25 [16.30]
Two pieces, Op.33 [6.02]
Pina Napolitano (piano)
rec. Studio Odradek, August 2011
ODRADEK 855317003004 [55.09]

Experience Classicsonline

This disc provides an overview of Schoenberg’s development during the years in which he was effectively re-inventing the process of musical composition. Now it has been an axiom since time immemorial that a piece which music critics describe as outrageously modern at the time of its first performance will eventually become recognised forty years later as a masterpiece which need disturb none of its listeners. However sixty years after his death Schoenberg is still regarded by classical audiences as beyond the pale, and by concert promoters as box-office death - with the exception of early romantic works such as Verklärte Nacht, Gürrelieder and Pelléas und Mélisande. 

By contrast Schoenberg’s contemporary Stravinsky has become well established as a popular repertoire favourite, despite - or perhaps because of - his sudden and violent changes of style from one period of his career to another. ‘Violent’ may seem like an exaggeration, but it isn’t - think of the discrepancy between, to take just one example, The Rake’s Progress of 1951 and the In memoriam Dylan Thomas that followed shortly thereafter. The one thing that must be observed of Stravinsky is that the least popular of his works are those of his last period, the period in which he embraced Schoenberg’s methods of twelve-tone composition.
Unlike Stravinsky, the trajectory and purpose of Schoenberg’s music was always clear. He began from the premise of Wagner’s Tristan, the chromatic dissolution of the old diatonic order, and extended it to breaking point and beyond in his expressionist works of the period of the First World War. Then, being desirous of intellectual order, he decided to impose upon himself a system of composition which gave structure and rigour to his music while avoiding the sense of key which he wished to supersede - although some of his pupils like Alban Berg managed to get the sense of key back into the music regardless. Having established this twelve-tone system to his satisfaction, he remained true to it for the remainder of his career, whilst at the same time observing undogmatically that there was still “good music to be written in C major.” The works of modern minimalists, which remain in one specific tone centre for an indefinite period of time, were obviously not quite what he had in mind, but his words nevertheless show a degree of foresight which his followers - intent on imposing a serial order on absolutely everything in their works - totally ignored.
There were a number of unfortunate results which resulted from this. In the first place, Schoenberg’s method - and the later developments which followed from it - enforced a dichotomy between modern classical music and its more popular counterpart. In the period before 1900 the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘pop’ music had been one of degree merely; but now it became endemic, because ‘pop’ music remained - and remains to this day - obstinately diatonic and rooted (however loosely) in the old system of keys. In the second place, the resulting music encountered a quite unprecedented amount of consumer resistance. The reason for this is not just a matter of lazy listeners’ habits. Tonal centres and harmonies are hard-wired into the human psyche, both because of the natural laws of acoustics and also because of the emotional undertow which inevitably attaches to harmonies which depart further and further from the natural harmonic scale. Schoenberg and his later followers, while ensuring that these ‘predictable’ echoes were avoided, managed to drive a wedge between the composer and the listener which was not easily surmounted.
In the third place, the sympathy of the listener was further alienated by the often laughably inadequate nature of the performances of the music that was laid before them. Even a fastidious conductor like Boulez in the 1970s countenanced errors of pitch - especially in singing - which go well beyond the reasonable bounds that Schoenberg permits in his use of “sing-speech” or other such devices; and by comparison with other conductors who espoused ‘modern’ music (such as Dimitri Mitropoulos), Boulez was a model of rectitude. The funny thing is that often the inaccuracies of the performance sometimes served to ‘soften’ the abandonment of the key system, as singers in particular tried to bend the pitches to a semblance of what they would expect in ‘normal harmony’. On the other hand there was a sense of wild abandon, “it doesn’t matter what we actually sing or play since the audience won’t notice.” Neither approach helped us to appreciate what the composer was actually trying to say.
Which brings us back to the disc under consideration in this review. The first thing that has to be said is that the “wrong note” problem is nowhere in evidence here; so far as I can tell, Pina Napolitano is note-perfect from first to last. The second thing is that she plays with delicacy and expression; in her hands the music sounds eminently approachable even when at its most iconoclastic. The third thing is that the recorded sound is ideal, not too close and not too distant, so that everything in this complex music is clearly audible.
The piano pieces featured here display Schoenberg’s development from the chromatic romanticism of the first two of the Op.11 pieces through the free expressionism of Op.19 to the strict dodecaphony of the later works. Heard as a whole in chronological order they make a fascinating experience, especially in performances as good as this. There is an alternative and very cheap disc containing these same works by Peter Jacobs on Apex originally recorded in the 1970s (which I have not heard), but that misses a point by presenting the pieces in non-chronological order. One also suspects that, if Apex adhere to their usual policy, the absence of booklet notes - those by Hugh Collins Rice are excellent here - will leave the listener with no guidance whatsoever to the manner in which Schoenberg’s style evolved. Roland Pöntinen (recorded in a more resonant acoustic) in a very full 2005 BIS disc includes the piano works of Berg as well, and one imagines that the booklet notes there are up to that company’s usual high standard. The major competition however must come from Maurizio Pollini, whose 1975 release on DG has long been regarded as a benchmark in this repertory. If you already have this disc - or Pöntinen’s - you will not need another, although the recording in this new release is rather less dry than in the digital re-mastering accorded to Pollini’s analogue sound.
However there is another plus to this issue. The new label Odradek has a declared policy by which - once production and distribution costs have been covered - all royalties from their releases will go to the artists themselves. Those who would like to support this surprisingly novel idea should by all means invest in this disc. The pianist in a booklet note says that she has tried to communicate the “expressive and romantic force” of the music, and she has certainly succeeded in this.
Paul Corfield Godfrey 

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