A series of budget-priced recordings on Naxos of Schoenberg by the scholar-conductor Robert Craft offer an excellent way to get to know Schoenberg's music in its variety. The CD I am reviewing here is available individually or in a recent box set consisting of five CDs. The Works of Arnold Schoenberg, Vol. 1Although the featured work on this CD is Schoenberg's rarely-performed "Concerto for String Quartet", I was much more moved by the remaining music on this disk, in which Schoenberg composes entirely in his own idiom, as opposed to combining his own style with that of earlier composers.
The work I enjoyed most on this CD was the earliest, Schoenberg's song cycle "The Book of Hanging Gardens.", opus 15, composed in 1909. I had no prior familiarity with the piece, in which Schoenberg sets a series of 15 poems by the German poet, Stephan George. (Texts and translations are included in the liner notes.) Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane sings the cycle accompanied by pianist Chrisotopher Oldfather. This is highly passionate, intense, and disturbing music which tells of the doomed love affair, set in a luxuriant garden, between an inexperienced young man and a married, aristocratic woman. The vocal line is varied in character, with much of it declamatory in style and delivered in a hushed, low voice. The piano accompaniment is integral to the work and is highly varied. There is a long pianistic prelude and a final, clangorous postlude. Some of the accompaniment is contrapuntal in character, while, in other songs, the accompaniment is chordal. In one of the songs, no. 7, only the right hand plays the accompaniment. With the exception of the final song, each of the songs is under three minutes. And with the exception of the eighth song in the cycle, which sets a text beginning "If today I do not touch your body,/ the threads of my soul will break/like strings stretched too much" the tempos are slow. Schoenberg believed that it this work he had achieved a unity between text and expression. The music is on the cusp between tonality and atonality. I his book on Schoenberg for the Master Musicians series, Malcolm Macdonald offers an excellent non-technical analysis of this passionate song-cycle and writes:
"The poetic images of the Hanging Gardens reflect interior emotional states; and so Schoenberg's music, too, is interior -- not scene-painting, but the matching in music of fleeting yet complex moods. The vocal line, more supple and recitative-like than in any previous songs, is extraordinarily wide-ranging." ("Schoenberg", at 176)
Jennifer Lane also sings the aria "The Song of the Wood Dove" from Schoenberg's massive work for large orchestra, chorus, and soloists, the "Gurre-Lieder" completed in 1909, at about the same time as the "Hanging Gardens" song-cycle. In 1923, Schoenberg took this climactic song and reset it for a chamber orchestra of 15. That version is presented here. The music is the same, with the exception of the much lighter and transparent orchestral accompaniment. This is also music of passion, violence and illicit love. In the aria, which occurs at the end of the first part of Gurre-Lieder, the wood dove narrates the course of a doomed love between a Medieval king of Denmark, Waldemar, and his mistress, Tove. Waldemar and Tove sing of their own passion earlier in the Gurre-Lieder. The text, by a romantic Danish poet, Peter Jacobsen, is not provided. The entire Gurre-Lieder in its large orchestration is available in a separate Naxos set with Craft conducting and Lane again singing the wood dove's aria. Schoenberg: Gurre-Lieder
In 1923, Schoenberg composed his first work entirely in the 12-tone style for which he has become notorious, the five-movement suite for piano opus 25 performed here by Christopher Oldfather. The twelve-tone row remains formidable to many listeners. This suite has a light, astringent texture. The work is written in the style of a Baroque Dance Suite, and the various, short thematic materials are repeated, as they are in the Baroque models. In addition to the revolutionary harmony, there is a great deal of unusual and varied rhythm in this suite and rapid, dazzling shifts in timbre and character. It is valuable to open oneself to this music and to hear it several times at spaced intervals. With patience, it rewards attention.
In terms of chronology, the final work on this CD is the "Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra in B flat" (note the tonal reference) which dates from the 1930s. By this time, Schoenberg's 12-tone style had well-advanced, and the composer returned to another manner. This concerto is a transcription of Handel's concerto for strings and continuo. Schoenberg had earlier transcribed a harpsichord concerto by the early classical composer Monn into a cello concerto; and, a few years later, he would transcribe Brahms's piano quartet opus 25 into a work for orchestra. (Both these transcriptions are available on other CDs by Craft in this series.) This concerto for string quartet is highly difficult to play. The four-movement work is generally arranged in a concertante style with the quartet alternating passages with the orchestra. The second movement, marked Largo, is almost exclusively for the quartet. Each movement begins by presenting Handel's themes in Handel's own musical language. As the movements progress, Schoenberg develops Handel's themes in his own 20th Century musical voice. Thus the work, together with its companions, is not simply a transcription but a modernization in which Schoenberg appropriates an earlier work to his own style. The work is thus something of a bridge in styles and helps to show the relationship between Schoenberg's music and that of earlier composers.
The CD concludes with a short interview of Schoenberg conducted in 1949. The text of the interview is reproduced in the liner notes.