Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951) composed a great deal of vocal music ranging from songs to choral works to opera. The musical style varies as well, from early romantic works of Schoenberg's student days to difficult, almost impenetrable, music in twelve tones. The variety of Schoenberg's compositions for voice is on display in this CD with Robert Craft and the Philharmonia Orchestra. The disk is part of an ongoing series of releases and reissues of Craft performing much of Schoenberg's output. The five works on this CD are all new releases. They were recorded between 2003 and 2006 at the Abbey Road Studio, London. The Simon Joly Chorale performs on the four choral selections. For the most part, the music on this disk is infrequently heard. I will discuss the works briefly in chronological order.
The CD includes a rarity, a short song for a capella mixed chorus titled "Ei,du Lutte" (Oh, you little one), which Schoenberg composed in 1895 at the age of 21. This little song of about one minute is a delight, perhaps the most accessible music Schoenberg ever wrote. It is simple and fun with none of the complexities of the composer's mature compositions.
In 1903-04, Schoenberg composed a set of six songs for piano and orchestra, opus 8. This set is also rarely performed today but is relatively accessible late romantic music which owes a great deal to Wagner and Richard Strauss. The texts are by a variety of writers. Each of the songs begins and ends with orchestral material. Some of the material is lyrical, while other portions of the songs are full of the passion of later romanticism. According to Craft's liner notes, the fifth song, "Voll jener Susse" (Filled with that Sweetness), set to a text of Petrarch translated by Stephan George, is the most famous of Schoenberg's lieder. Jennifer Welch-Babidge is the soprano soloist. It was good to hear this unfamiliar music of Schoenberg's early years.
Set for male a capella chorus, "Friede auf Erden", (Peace on Earth) opus 13 is another infrequently heard piece which dates from 1907 and is also in a late romantic style. Most of this chorus of about 8 minutes has a hushed, serene quality. But the next work on the CD, the Six Pieces for Male Chorus a capella, opus 35, is Schoenberg at his most difficult. Schoenberg wrote the texts for these songs which are on religious, philosophical themes. Of the set, two of the songs are in a relatively accessible tonal style while the remaining four songs are atonal and bristle with close harmonies and a great deal of contrapuntal writing. This set has had infrequent performances but is worth getting to know for listeners who want to learn about Schoenberg.
Schoenberg was born Jewish, converted to Lutheranism as a young man, and formally reconverted to Judaism in 1932-1933. The remaining two works on this CD, (together with the opus 35 discussed above) reflect Schoenberg's growing religious preoccupations. Schoenberg's opera "Moses und Aron" (1932) deals with the Exodus from Egypt and with the episode of the Golden Calf. The opera, written throughout in a jagged twelve tone style, is the most frequently heard of the works on this disk. Craft presents three short excerpts from Act II of the opera which focus on the sacrifices the Israelites are offering to the Calf before Moses returns from Sinai. The music features a quartet of naked virgins which, unfortunately, are nowhere to be seen on the CD.
The final work on this CD is Schoenberg's setting of Kol Nidre for Rabbi-Narrator, Mixed Chorus and Orchestra, opus 39. Schoenberg composed this work in 1938, after he had moved to Los Angeles. The Kol Nidre is a solemn prayer recited on the eve of the Day of Atonement seeking absolution from vows and sins. Schoenberg had difficulties with the traditional text of the prayer. He recast the text so that it became an invitation for Jews who had abandoned their faith in favor of another religion to return and pray with the congregation. Schoenberg had the Inquisition in mind as a historical situation, but the theme perhaps applied to his own case as well. The work opens with a lengthy and atonal orchestral passage which suggests the infinity of creation. The text, which is in English, begins with a declamatory spoken passage for the Rabbi which is soon joined by choral voices of prayer and repentance. This is a powerful little-known work of Schoenberg's maturity, which I had the good fortune to hear live a few years ago in a performance at the Washington National Cathedral. David Wilson-Johnson declaims the part of the rabbi in this performance.
Texts of "Ei, du Lutte" and of the opus 8 and 13 songs are available on the Naxos website without translation. It is unfortunate that English texts are unprovided. This CD is available individually or as part of a compilation, The Works of Arnold Schoenberg, Vol. 2 - The Robert Craft Edition the second in the Naxos series, of Schoenberg's music conducted by Robert Craft.