The three works on this CD illustrate the diversity of Arnold Schoenberg's (1874 -- 1951) compositional styles. The CD includes Schoenberg's difficult masterwork, the String Quartet no. 2 in f-sharp minor (1908), which marks the transition from tonality to atonality, and two latter, lesser-known works, the set of six a cappella mixed choruses (1928, 1948) and the Suite in G for string orchestra (1934). For those who think of Schoenberg only in terms of dissonance and difficulty, these latter two works will prove surprisingly accessible.
Schoenberg composed the String Quartet no. 2 in the midst of a marital crisis. His wife had left him for a young artist, but she was persuaded to return to Schoenberg, possibly for the sake of the couple's two children. Her paramour committed suicide. The passionate, introspective, and harsh character of the quartet likely reflects the composer's tortured emotions when he wrote it. The work is of unusual form in that the third and fourth movements set poems by Stephan George (1868 -- 1933), a favorite of the composer. The Fred Sherry String Quartet and soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge capture the tension and smoldering feelings of this work in this 2005 recording.
The work opens with an allegro which is just within tonality and heavily influenced by Wagner. (In fact, the main theme of the movement is derived from a Wagner theme.) The movement is dense and compact with heavy use of counterpoint. It is music of anguish. In the scherzo, Schoenberg moves to atonality. The movement alternates between a brusque, quick phrase and a longer slower response. Near the end of the movement, Schoenberg offers a sardonic quotation of the familiar song, "Auch du Lieber Augustin", which includes the words "all is lost." Following the quotation, the movement works to a rapid peroration. The third and fourth movements set George's poems "Litany" and "Ecstasy." In "Litany", Welch-Babidge's voice seems just to arise out of the quartet as an additional instrument. The text begs for the return of lost love. The declamatory text receives close accompaniment from the quartet, especially the cello. The final movement begins with a lengthy prelude from the quartet which is wandering and disturbing. George's poem and Welch-Babidge's singing are both concentrated and intense. The poem concludes "I am but a spark of the holy fire/ I am but an echo of the holy voice" followed by a lengthty postlude for the quartet which fades away at the close. The quartet was ill-received upon its first performance and still makes for challenging listening.
In his later years, Schoenberg wrote several works, including the six choruses on this CD, which incorporate music of earlier composers. These choruses use as their texts German folk poetry of the 16th Century. Schoenberg used the original melodies, but he set and harmonized them freely. The works are a distant relation to Brahms's setting of German folksongs late in his life. Schoenberg set three of the poems in 1928 and returned to the form with three settings in 1948. The poem "Two good Maiden Friends" is included in both groups to different settings. These poems are lyrical and easy to hear. They make use of close counterpoint and, frequently, modern harmonies. These rare works are beautifully sung by the Simon Joly Singers, a select choral group from London, in a 2005 recording. The work of the set I most enjoyed was the intricate and bittersweet "Shine on us, Dear Sun", one of the settings from 1928.
The rarely-performed Suite in G for String Orchestra was Schoenberg's first composition after moving to the United States. It is performed on this CD by the Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble of New York in a recording dating from 2004. Schoenberg wrote the work to be performed by students, but it is too difficult to serve the purpose. The work is tonal in character and written in what Schoenberg termed the "old style". It is in the form of an Baroque suite, with its five dance movements marked, Overture, Adagio, Minuet, Gavotte, and Gigue. The Overture is in the archaic slow-fast-slow form, but the fast section is an elaborate and difficult five voice fugue. The work makes effective contrasts between the lower and higher voices of the string ensemble, and there are many concertante passages for soloists. The music is easy to follow. On occasion Schoenberg complicates the harmonic structure of the work. The Suite is an unmistakably modernist composition, but it is not difficult to hear. I was reminded of Schoenberg's cello concerto, written shortly before this work (1932-1933) which is a modernist arrangement of a harpsichord concerto by the early classical composer, Georg Monn. These works offer good introductions to the more overtly modern works of Schoenberg.
The CD includes texts and translations of both the George poems in the quartet and the six poems of the choruses. The CD is part of a comprehensive series of releases and reissues of Schoenberg's music on Naxos under the direction of conductor Robert Craft. The disk is available individually and as part of a six-CD compilation, The Works of Arnold Schoenberg, Vol. 2 - The Robert Craft Edition. These recordings are invaluable for listeners wishing to explore the music of Arnold Schoenberg.