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on 13 March 2007
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) is often viewed as the arch-bogeyman of 20th century music. In some respects this is true, and, to this day, many audiences have problems assimilating his music. I must confess that I had problems myself, in spite of musical training and a long time listening to "difficult" 20th century composers, such as Schnittke. For a long time I thought that Schoenberg would elude me, no matter how much goodwill I felt towards him. Then this CD came along. Robert Craft was the close friend and collaborator of Stravinsky, so, I felt, if anyone could be trusted with these works, it was him. I had not heard the Cello Concerto or the Brahms/Schoenberg Quartet, but, having read Malcolm Macdonald's book, "Schoenberg" (do get it if you can!!), and seen the beautiful photos of Balanchine's ballet to the Brahms/Schoenberg Quartet, I felt they could be trusted and gave the CD a try. WHAT A REVELATION!! In one FELL SWOOP, I could see how Schoenberg "fits" in with tradition. And what a marvelous tradition it is. The Cello Concerto is now one of my favourite works of any kind. I have returned to it again and again. Should I be fortunate enough to ever see the New York City Ballet, I can't wait to see the ballet done to the Quartet, and, as for the "difficult" 5 Orchestral Pieces op.16, this listener now can't get enough of Piece No.3 (colours). It really IS Summer Morning by a Lake. If you really want to know Schoenberg in all his multi-facetted genius, begin here. You will be in for the treat and the adventure of a lifetime. Long Live Robert Craft. He is a marvel, and the very BEST ambassador Schoenberg could EVER have wished for. Go and buy this NOW!! ESPECIALLY if you've never heard of Schoenberg, or if you've been put off by the legend. One hearing of this and you'll be a convert. As, I am VERY happy to say, am I. 10/10
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I can only echo the other reviewer of this briliant CD; a great place to start to get to know this fascinating composer. Many "classical music" listners dismiss Schoenberg as tuneless and, frankly, unlistenable. This is patent nonsense!

On this well-packed and programmed Naxos CD we have Five Pieces for Orchestra Op. 16,the lovely Cello Concerto, and, perhaps the most stunning piece of all, the orchestration of Brahms' Piano Quartet in G minor Op. 25.

All of this is great stuff and I genuinely believe that most people with a liking for "not another version of Mahler's 5th symphony" open-mindedness will love this. (I'm not picking on Mahler, by the way!).

Couple this great music with superb engineering, and interesting booklet, and you have a terrific bargain.

All of the Robert Craft Naxos Schoenberg CDs are worth investigating.
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Budget-priced recordings offer an outstanding opportunity to expand one's musical horizons. Thus, the Naxos label has recently released a five-CD compilation of recordings of the music of Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951) by the noted scholar and conductor, Robert Craft. My understanding is that several similar compilations of Craft-Schoenberg are in process. These recordings had been released in the mid-1990's on the Koch label before being reissued individually on Naxos in the last few years and then combined in a five-CD set. I have familiarity with some of Schoenberg but wanted to take the opportunity these releases present to hear his music further and discuss it for interested readers on Amazon. Schoenberg, the founder of the so-called "Second Viennese School" remains a difficult, controversial composer, primarily for his development of the twelve-tone atonal method of composition relatively late in his career.

As do the other releases in this set, this CD includes both major and less significant works of Schoenberg. The major work is the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 which dates from 1909. The relatively minor works are two transcriptions of the music of other composers, the Cello Concerto (after G.M. Monn) which dates from 1932 and Schoenberg's 1937 orchestration of Brahms's Piano Quartet in g minor, Brahms op. 25. Craft conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in the Five Pieces and the Philharmonia Orchestra in the two transcriptions.

The Five Pieces for Orchestra is a densely-packed work of about 15 minutes. Schoenberg gave names to each of the pieces after his publisher prodded him to do so. By 1909, Schoenberg was composing atonally, (sometimes called pantonally) but he had not developed the 12-tone row. Schoenberg's music is sometimes dismissed as overly cerebral or intellectual. This does him a disservice. Craft begins his notes for this volume with a statement of Schoenberg's artistic aim written at about the same time as this piece:

"Art belongs to the unconscious. One must express oneself directly. Not one's taste, or one's upbringing, or one's intelligence, knowledge, or skill. Not all these acquired characteristics, but that which is inborn, instinctive."

For all that Schoenberg fairly described his musical aim, the Five Pieces are difficult and concentrated indeed. The short pieces are tied together be repeated motifs. Each one begins with a short introductory phrase which becomes the basis for the movement. Phrases are repeated and developed with differences in tempo, rhythm, chord structure, and instrumentation. (Schoenberg shows his mastery as an orchestrator here and in the remainder of this CD.) Loud, highly dissonant sections of the work alternate with quieter, lyrical portions. The highlight of the work is in the final piece, marked "the Obligato Recitative" which takes materials from the earlier sections and works them into a climactic conclusion. The Five Pieces demand careful listening but the work repays the effort.

The remaining two works are transcriptions composed well after Schoenberg had developed his 12-tone method and after he had composed his operatic masterpiece in that idiom, "Moses und Aron". In these two works, Schoenberg seems to be resting somewhat and attempting to compose in a more accessible style. The cello concerto after Monn was composed for Pablo Casals who declined to play it. Monn was a late baroque, early classical composer, and Schoenberg's transcription has an astringent, neoclassical feel. Monn's original concerto was for the harpsichord. Schoenberg's transcription is notoriously difficult to play with its solo part high in the cello's register and its extensive use of double stops. I had the sense that the music doesn't lie well on the cello. With its orchestration and harmonization, Schoenberg's transcription has a distinctly modernist tone. It is unmistakably the work of a modern composer writing in an early classical idiom, similar in that regard to many works of Stravinsky and to Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony." Robert Sherry admirably performs the cello solo.

Schoenberg's transcription of the Brahms g minor piano quartet is better-known and more successful than his Monn transcription. Schoenberg said that he transposed this work for orchestra because the piano played a too dominant role in Brahms's quartet. Schoenberg's transcription is recognizably Brahms, but, as with the Monn, it is its own piece and has a modern flavor in its harmony, orchestration and angularity. The orchestration is at its strongest in the concluding Hungarian rondo in which Schoenberg makes great use of the xylophone, cymbals, and other percussion. The work is a combination of late romanticism with modernism. It is accessible and enjoyable.

I am looking forward to hearing more of Schoenberg in these performances by Robert Craft.

Robin Friedman
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 23 February 2012
if you have modernist inclinations, this being among Schoenberg's watershed works. In this incredibly dense sixteen-minute set, we hear Schoenberg reaching for new levels of harmonic and rhythmic abstraction, picking up the baton from Debussy perhaps. For me, these pieces are on the cusp of difficulty, originating before his development of Serialism and the rather more astringent and challenging works that followed. We hear incidents of strong dissonance and some abrasive moments, but also as much, if not more, exquisite delicacy and outright beauty. From our twenty-first-century perspective this is Modernism with one foot still in the garden of Romanticism.

I'm afraid I'm not at all fond of the Cello Concerto, and that's why I've lopped off a star. To me Schoenberg has selected a work from the Baroque at its most trite, particularly the first movement. I could perhaps put up with the form and idiom, if I could just get a grip on the Cello part but, on this recording at least, the Cello seems to be all over the place. It is obviously a highly difficult solo part, with much leaping between registers, and I can't tell whether it's just that Fred Sherry is not up to it, or whether any human Cellist would ever be up to it. This, to my ear, is one of those performances in which one hears the soloist fighting desperately just to play the notes, let alone give them any musical expression. It would be interesting to know what were Schoenberg's motivations for writing this piece, other that it being for Casals, who thought it too hard. Schoenberg himself was a cellist, so he must have had some clear conception of what he hoped it would sound like, but whatever it was, it seems opaque to me.

The final piece, the transcription for Orchestra of Brahms' G minor Piano Quartet, is actually quite fabulous. Not remotely modernistic, experimental or challenging, except perhaps in its vividness of orchestral colouring. It will be effortlessly enjoyed by anyone at home with the High Romantics. At first one wonders why Schoenberg bothered (his actual reasons are given by Kraft in the booklet), but quite quickly one realises that despite remaining faithful to Brahms' score, the emotional and atmospheric narrative is entirely distinct to that of Brahms. Despite opening with the impressive seriousness of the original, by the time we arrive at the end we are in a festival atmosphere, having passed through intervals of great excitement, unearthly beauty, and much else besides.

So, in summary, an epochal Modernist masterpiece, a (possibly) misguided anachronism and a sumptuous feast of Late Romantic colour and fireworks. All in all, Schoenberg at his most accessible and easy.
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on 10 October 2012
It took me a while to accustom myself to the very different sound worlds brought forth by these three works. The first, Five Pieces for Orchestra, was composed in 1909. (" On or around 1910, " Virginia Woolf wrote, " human nature changed. " Well, she was wrong. ) Hard to imagine Elgar's Violin Concerto followed a year later, with its rich patina of postromantic nostalgia. This is a different world completely. Although there are, it is true, ghosts of Mahler and perhaps Strauss flitting here and there, there are also suggestions of Debussy, particularly in the delicacy and transparency of the scoring. Otherwise we are, harmonically, at the juncture of Schoenberg's postromantic idiom of Pelleas and Verklarte Nacht and his discovery of the twelve-note system - we are immersed in atonality, or, as Schoenberg had it, pantonality. The five pieces, only given titles on the suggestion of the composer's publisher in 1912, have a great variety of mood: sinister, quixotic, brutally dissonant (as in the 'war-elephant outburst' in the first piece), great stillness (Farben, the third) and haunting originality. My favourites are the second and third. I've rarely encountered such magical sound worlds as these. This orchestral work is a dazzling masterpiece of such delicacy and subtlety it is very hard to follow in a score.( By comparison, Le Sacre is much easier.) I've come to the conclusion old Arnold was a bit of a control freak when it came to scoring - every note and gradation of note has to count but the LSO manage very deftly.

The Monn cello concerto is nice enough in its way and nothing like its predecessor. It is tuneful and inventive and I would imagine fiendishly difficult for the excellent soloist, Fred Sherry. (Apparently Pablo Casals refused to play it.) Perhaps Arnold was a sadist as well as a control freak...

I find the reworking of Brahms' Piano Quartet fascinating. I am surprised it is not better known. There is a bewildering panoply of orchestral variety on display here and it isn't long before Brahms has left us. I mean thematically this resembles a work by Brahms, but the orchestration is nothing like him.( Would he have used a glockenspiel?) Prepare to be amazed at the sheer variety and invention.

Mention Schoenberg sometimes and concert-goers equate him with 'box-office poison'. This is changing, little by little, thank God. Certainly there is nothing here that is particularly hard on the ears. I would further like to add, apart from the excellent performances, Robert Craft's sleeve-notes are a revelation. They are among the most detailed and comprehensive I've ever read.
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on 9 August 2009
Very good value, sounds as good as higher budget recordings. I have been pleasantly surprised at the quality of the orchestration.
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