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The conductor and scholar Robert Craft has been releasing an extensive series of the music of Arnold Schoenberg (1874 -- 1951) on the Naxos label. This, the most recent CD in the series, includes five Schoenberg pieces composed between 1925 and 1946. During this time, Schoenberg had developed the twelve-tone "serial" means of composition for which he is most famous (or notorious). All the works on this CD make use of twelve-tones, making this disk both difficult and a good overview of late Schoenberg.

The CD begins with the String Trio opus 45 composed in 1946, This work of about 18 minutes is performed here by Rolf Schulte, violin, Richard O'Neill, viola, and Fred Sherry, cello, in a 2005 recording. String trios are a relatively rare genre. Besides Schoenberg's effort the most famous works in this form are Beethoven's three opus 9 trios and a late trio by Mozart. Schoenberg's work is dark and difficult, as it was composed just after the composer had recovered from a near-death illness during which his heart had stopped and had to be restored by an injection. The work is in five movements, with the even numbered movements marked "episodes" and the odd-numbered movements parts 1,2, and 3. The writing and interplay among the instruments is close and dense and features long pizzicato passaages, glissandos, and sections in which the musicians use the hard part of their bows upon the strings. The work also has long solo passages of melody for each of the three instruments, especially the cello. The outer movement tend to be rapid and frightening while much of the inner material is slower and reflective. The serial musical language is difficult and the work makes heavy demands on the performers. Melodies to come clear with patient listening. The string trio is one of the masterworks of 20th Century music.

The lengthiest work on this CD is the 29 minute Septet-Suite, opus 29 composed in 1925-26. It is scored for the unusual combination of piano (Christopher Oldfather), two clarinets (Charles Neidich and Alan Kay), bass clarinet(Michael Lowenstein), violin (Rolf Schulte), viola (Toby Appel) and cello (Fred Sherry). The recording dates from 1995. As do some of Schoenberg's other serial works from the 1920s, including the Suite for Piano and the Serenade, this work combines dance forms from earlier musical eras with its new musical language. Thus the opening movement, "Overture" includes landler themes, the second movement "Tanzschritte" includes contrasting fast and slow dances, the third movement consists of a theme a five relatively easy to follow variations on a song popular in Germany, while the finale is a lively and rhythmical gigue. The movements each make much of contrasting fast and jagged with slow and more lyrical material. This work together with the trio show that serialism was capable in Schoenberg's hands of expressing a wide variety of moods and emotions.

The final instrumental work on this CD is the 8 minute "Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene" opus 34 composed in 1929-1930. It is performed here by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Craft in a 1994 recording. This short orchestral piece is one of Schoenberg's more accessible twelve-tone compositions. It was written for an imaginary movie rather than as a commission for an actual one. The three parts are captioned "Threatening Fear", "Danger" and "Catastrophe". Schoenberg's score is highly theatrical and invites the listener to see in the mind's eye a movie setting for for the music.

The CD also includes two sets of choruses, opus 27 and opus 28 from the mid 1920s. I don't find these works as challenging as the instrumental compositions, but they are enjoyable and relatively accessible. Both sets are performed by the Simon Joly Chorale of London are were recorded in June 2006. The first set, the "Four Pieces for Mixed Chorus" opus 27 includes three a capella works and a finale in which clarinet, mandolin, violin, and cello accompany the chorus. The texts for the final two choruses are Chinese in origin while the initial two texts were composed by Schoenberg himself. The "Three Satires for Mixed Chorus" includes two brief unaccompanied works and conludes with a lengthier piece "Der neue Klassizismus" in which viola, cello, and piano accompany the chorus. In the "Three Satires", Schoenberg poked fun at conservative musical critics who disliked Schoenberg's radical methods of composition. Texts and translations are not provided for the choruses.

For listeners wanting to get to know Schoenberg's late music, this CD is an excellent choice.

Total Time: 79:12

Robin Friedman
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