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Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Complete Piano Works
Drei Klavierstücke, Op.11 (1909) [15:13]
Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op.19 (1911) [5:22]
Fünf Klavierstücke, Op.23 (1923) [11:55]
Suite für Klavier, Op.25 (1923) [16:30]
Klavierstücke, Op.33a/b (1931) [6:02]
Pina Napolitano (piano)
rec. Studio Odradek, August 2011. DDD
ODRADEK ODRCD300 [55:09]

Op. 11 represents Schoenberg’s gradual move away from tonality. In the first piece we notice reminiscences of Brahms and classical form, and Napolitano gives a dreamy feel to the start. Soon this becomes interspersed with more rhythmic and fiery interjections which are well and clearly articulated.
Perhaps Claude Helffer gives a more dramatic performance on Harmonia Mundi. It is certainly quicker and fleet of foot, with very rhythmic but shapely playing. He plays with passion. He also takes the second movement somewhat faster than Napolitano and this helps maintain flow and structure. Napolitano also gives a good account and the recording is fine, though a touch boxy at times.
Better recorded on L’empreinte digitale is Michel Maurer, who gives a very lyrical account of the first movement but is no less dramatic than the others. The best recorded version is from Roland Pöntinen on BIS. The acoustic is warm and romantic, very appropriate for this music but BIS also copes admirably with the huge dynamic range demanded by the composer. Pöntinen plays with real lyricism where needed but the third movement is very fiery and dramatic and recorded with great clarity.
Sechs kleine Klavierstücke Op. 19 are characterised by the concentration of a realm of expressive possibilities in pieces of great brevity. Napolitano pays meticulous attention to every tiny detail. Her chosen tempi are very good and she accurately captures the mood. The final piece, written by Schoenberg following Mahler’s funeral, is exquisitely played. I am surprised to find the wide variety of tempi adopted by different players in this work. Paul Jacobs on Nonesuch makes much greater contrast with the speeds than Napolitano. His Sehr langsam of movement 3 really is slow, and movement 4 is crystal clear with its virtuosic final bars glittering.
Napolitano makes the most of the lyrical aspect in the first piece of Klavierstücke Op. 23 but she is equally effective in the more fiery and explosive moments. The third piece, marked Langsam, begins with a five-note motif, like a kind of precursor of the 12-note series which Schoenberg developed in the last movement and in Op. 25. I am struck by the meticulous detail which Napolitano gives her realisation of this and, indeed, all the movements. Every performance direction marked by Schoenberg is carefully observed and she has obviously spent a long time in preparation. There are a myriad different and subtle levels of staccato and articulation, dynamics and tempo changes.
Roland Pöntinen plays a slower Sehr langsam first movement than Napolitano, but I like the warmer sound of the Odradek recording and Napolitano gives the music more forward propulsion. In piece 4, Napolitano gives an exciting rendition and her explosive climaxes are convincingly approached, whilst the concluding Waltz dances along effectively.
The Suite Op. 25, whilst moving forward to serialism in the last movement, refers back to the Baroque Suite. The opening Präludium feels improvisatory though it is meticulously organised and Napolitano brings it to a fiery and energetic conclusion. The ensuing Gavotte feels a bit more dance-like and has the form and shape we would expect. The sudden fortes and accents deny the feelings of grace and charm we would expect in a Baroque dance movement but the Musette is witty, even amusing and at times delicate with lovely textures. The Intermezzo is the emotional centre of the work, slow, expressive and intense. Napolitano certainly gets to the heart of this music. The Menuett and Trio attempts to be more capricious, but maybe its complexity is too much for its own good. It is superbly played by Napolitano who is, as always, meticulous in following the composer’s directions. The concluding Gigue is a virtuosic tour de force of virtuosity and our pianist is well able to do justice to this movement’s great performance difficulties. She concludes her disc with fine and exhilarating accounts of Opp. 33a and 33b.
After having listened to most of Schoenberg’s music from time to time throughout my life, I have certainly come to admire it greatly and it can be a very refreshing change to hear music of this period. I have also taught some of the piano music, as well as discussing and analysing serial works with A level students. In spite of constantly trying, I still find it very difficult to really like or enjoy it, let alone love it or have any real desire to listen to it. However, I am still trying and Pina Napolitano’s recording on Odradek may be a good place to start. The pieces are superbly played and the disc is well-recorded.
If you are new to this music it might be a good idea to go for a recording which also includes the Berg Sonata which is a bit more approachable, probably because of its more romantic nature. Roland Pöntinen’s recording is very fine and offers good value as it includes the Berg (BIS-CD-1417). Peter Hill’s account on Naxos is very good, too, and includes not only the Berg but also a delicate and attractive performance of Webern’s Piano Variations Op. 27 (8.553870 – review).
To some extent, Schoenberg remained a romantic composer in spite of his route towards increasing atonality and serialism. In her programme note, Pina Napolitano states that she hopes that she succeeds in conveying the expressive and romantic force of Schoenberg’s music. I think we can say that she has achieved her goal.
Geoffrey Molyneux
Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey