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Exploring the Music of Schoenberg with Robert Craft,
This review is from: Schoenberg - Pierrot Lunaire; Chamber Symphony No 1 (Audio CD)
Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951) remains a difficult composer even in his more accessible styles. Yet, his music rewards effort and repeated hearings. Some years ago, the scholar-conductor Robert Craft recorded a great deal of Schoenberg on the Koch International Classics label, and these recordings have been reissued on the budget priced Naxos label. I am finding these recordings an excellent way to focus on Schoenberg.
There are four works on this CD, including three works for voice and orchestra and an instrumental piece, the "Chamber Symphony No. 1" opus 9. The works were composed between 1906 and 1916 and each has its own character. They show a good deal of Schoenberg's development.
The Chamber Symphony No. 1 (1906), performed with Craft and the Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble in a 1998 recording, is the earliest work on this CD. It is a taut, compact work of about 20 minutes in a single movement with five subsections that Schoenberg marked sonata-allegro, scherzo, development, adagio, and recapitulation. The piece is scored for an ensemble of ten winds and five strings. The small ensemble contrasts markedly with the large orchestra used by Strauss, Mahler, and Schoenberg himself in other compositions of the day. The predominance of the winds gives the work a distinctive texture. The work is based throughout on the same thematic material, which is subject to great variation and development in terms of harmony, rhythm, and instrumentation. The tempo changes constantly, and the work has a propulsive feel. Regarded as one of Schoenberg's masterworks, the Chamber Symphony No. 1 combines late romanticism and Schoenberg's developing original style in a most challenging way. The work requires concentrated listening.
The next work chronologically is the short song "Herzgewachse" (foliage of the heart) opus 20 (1911) in which Schoenberg set a poem by Maurice Maetterlink. The work is for the combination of soprano, harmonium, celesta and harp. This seldom-heard short work has a demanding vocal line, sung here by coloratura soprano Eileen Hulse in a recording dating from 1994. The work is characterized by its unusual instrumention which Schoenberg uses to the utmost and by the repeated and passionate outbursts late in the piece at the highest ranges of the soprano's register.
One of the most frequently played of Schoenberg's compositions, Pierrot Lunaire (1912) is a setting of 21 poems in three parts scored for voice, piano, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola, and cello. The poems were written in French by Albert Giraud but Schoenberg set the German translation by Eric Harleben. It was his first work in a distinctly atonal style. The vocal line is marked Sprecstimme. The line between speech in accordance with notes and singing remains highly ambiguous, with this performance by soprano Anja Silja more on the singing side of the continuum. The recording dates from 1997. The work is declaimed by a Harlequin-like character in three sections which speak of the moon and romance, violence and crime, and a nostalgic journey home. Pierrot Lunaire is a cabaret piece in modernistic, decadent style. There should be no illusion that this music is accessible or easy. Listeners tend to either love or hate this work, and I find myself of the former view.
The final work on the CD is another rarity, the Four Orchestral Songs, opus 22 (1916) scored for soprano and varying collections of instruments featuring the clarinet. The recording with mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers dates from 1993. The first and longest song, "Seraphita" sets a poem by the English writer Ernest Dowson (best-known for his poem "Cynara") in a
German translation by Stephan George. It features a long elaborate introduction played by six clarinets followed by a floridly romantic vocal line. The work comes to a lengthy, elaborate orchestral close with a wide collage of instrumentation and varying timbres. The remaining three songs are settings of poetry by Rilke. This seldom-held music is lyrical in character with romantic vocal lines.
Unfortunately this CD includes neither texts nor translations. Texts only are available on the Naxos website. Schoenberg wanted listeners to concentrate on the music rather than on the poems he set, but the texts would still have added a great deal to this release. Listeners wanting to expand their knowledge of a great but still controversial 20th Century composer will enjoy this CD and its companions by Robert Craft.