Robert Craft has always been closely identified, understandably, with the works of Stravinsky, but he has also always been a proponent of the works of the Second Viennese School; indeed he was given credit by Stravinsky for urging the composer to study some of those works closely. This disc contains a mixture of works from all of Schoenberg's various styles. There is the post-Romantic 'Lied der Waldtaube' ('Song of the Wood Dove') from 'Gurre-Lieder' (in a chamber arrangement made by the composer); the Suite for Piano, Op. 25, perhaps the earliest of his twelve-tone compositions; his neo-classic arrangement (recomposition, actually) of Handel's 'Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 7' as the 'Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra'; and finally, the great twelve-tone song-cycle 'Der Buch des Hängenden Gärten' ('The Book of the Hanging Gardens') for mezzo-soprano and piano. Craft either conducts ('Concerto', 'Waldtaube') or plays piano accompaniment ('Hanging Gardens'); the only thing he doesn't participate in is the Piano Suite, which is played by Christopher Oldfather.
For me, by far the most interesting work here is the new composition Schoenberg made for string quartet and orchestra based on the Handel concerto grosso. The string quartet playing here is one made up ad hoc, one gathers, by Fred Sherry, cello, a long-time collaborator with Mr Craft. The other players a Jennifer Frautschi and Jesse Mills, violins, and Richard O'Neill, viola. This piece is hard to describe. One way to think of it is that the orchestra plays--more or less--the Handel original, and the quartet riffs on its themes. But that's really not quite what happens. For one thing, Schoenberg goes off on such original tangents along the way, repeatedly, that one is really more focused on the quartet, although they are often a part of the orchestral texture, and less clearly, much of the time, on the harmonic and thematic backbone the Handel provides. It is an utterly charming work. Certainly the quartet must consist of virtuosi but I was amused that in the booklet notes by Craft he comments that the quartet part is "one of the most demanding for the solo instruments of a quartet since the Beethoven's 'Grosse Fuge.'" Well, uh, maybe, but I would suggest there have been far more difficult quartet works than this one; think of Elliott Carter's quartets, for example. Be that as it may, the quartet acquits themselves nicely, as does the 'Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble' conducted by Craft. But I still prefer the recording made by the American String Quartet with Gerard Schwarz conducting members of the Seattle Symphony, still available. It strikes me that their playing is more supple.
Christopher Oldfather plays the wonderful Piano Suite with élan and Schwung; this is a rhythmically tricky work and he not only manages it nicely, he gives it a lot of oomph. This is the sort of twelve-tone work that people who don't ordinarily like that style of music wind up smiling over. I think that's at least partly because it still sounds like hyperchromatic Romantic music (think Berg, say) and because of its rhythmic ingenuity.
Jennifer Lane, mezzo, sings the 'Song of the Wood Dove' in a chamber arrangement made by Schoenberg using the same fifteen instruments he used in his Chamber Symphony. Her singing is simply lovely, and if one wishes one can compare this performance with the full-orchestra performance she gives with Craft and the Philharmonia Orchestra, a recording just recently released (and reviewed by me here at Amazon). [Naxos does not provide the text for the Wood Dove's Song; it is available at their website, but without an English translation of the German.] Lane also sings the 'Book of the Hanging Gardens' accompanied by Craft. Lovely as it is, though, I think the classic recording with Jan de Gaetani and Gilbert Kalish is superior for de Gaetani's knowing projection of Stefan George's text. The full text in German and English is provided.
The final band is a conversation between composer Halsey Stevens and Schoenberg recorded in 1949. It lasts about six minutes and is not particularly enlightening, but it does give one the chance to hear Schoenberg's genial manner.
This is a budget release, and even though I have some minor quibbles about some of the performances, it is a good introduction to these works.