TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 16 October 2009
When discussing the music of Schoenberg it is customary for commentators to focus on the technicalities of his various musical systems, with the emotional and psychological aspects left as an afterthought, if considered at all. Perhaps this is because the content of his music is so darned uncomfortable, it being easier to explain our unease in terms of systems of dissonance rather than those of frank psycho-spiritual pathology. There are many for whom Schoenberg is the bête noire who signalled the end of music worth listening to. I do not happen to agree, but within the rigid parameters of the pre-Freudian psyche they have a valid point. For the Romantics Beauty was Truth, and Will could triumph over pain and despair to win through to it. But for the modernists, and arguably as most explicitly pioneered by Schoenberg, all is relativised. Beauty may have to be sought in ugliness, and what might appear beautiful at first sight might become ugly when examined too closely. Will does not always, indeed frequently does not triumph, and pain and despair are real enemies that can break people irrevocably, and do so with recurrent banality and without any trace of it mattering in a spiritual vacuum. To hear beyond the dissonant syntax of Schoenberg's music, through to its emotional semantic kernel, one must turn to face it on these terms. One must acknowledge that it is full of real pain and real torment that the meagre soul may not be adequate to, and that it really does hurt to listen to, not just because of the technical means chosen, but because of the meaning it is intended to convey. Being great art the message is so much more than just the medium.
The first work on the disc is the three minute wonder, Herzgewäsche of 1911. This work combines harp, celeste and various stops of the harmonium to create an ethereal, almost sinister backdrop against which a soprano performs a hugely demanding part, that takes her to the very extremes of her range of both pitch and artistry. This serves as a superb scene setter for the main course to follow, the radiantly psychotic Pierrot Lunaire completed in the following year.
Pierror Lunaire is a Sprechstimme, the soprano part being musically notated but with the instruction that it be spoken not sung, thus placing the emphasis on the syllabic structure of the text. To be clear, this is music and not spoken word, and if it were not made explicit that this was not straightforward song I would probably have been none the wiser. Three groups of seven poems, a freely translated selection into German by Erich Hartleben from the original fifty by the Belgian port Albert Giraud. The poems are grotesque and surreal, with more than a little resonance with the Baudelaire of Fleurs du mal, and to which spirit the music is entirely faithful. The text is not provided in the notes but an English translation can be found on the net which is well worth googling. In Pierrot we hear most clearly music that is not just avant garde, not just iconoclastic. It is music that is constructed from hysterical panics, howls of pain and groans of despair. Above all it is music that is in love with madness. Along the way beauty is encountered, frequently. Sometimes desperate, sometimes furtive, often poisonous, at times even deathly. It is a beauty made all the more precious for the knowledge of its transience and illusory nature. The ensemble that accompanies the soprano for Pierrot is an intriguing combination from which Schoenberg manages to extract all sorts of strange colours and sonorities. Piano, flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin/viola and cello. I should point out here that some of the scoring requires fantastic precision from the players that those on this release deliver with tremendous panache.
We next have Four Orchestral Songs from 1916. Written in the depths of the war, four short songs, all listless and forlorn, brimful with quiet disappointment. This is the music of one who has made some kind of recovery from madness, from which all glamour has now faded, but who knows that they will never be the same. That something has been irretrievably lost, and for whom life is now a more or less dignified waiting for death. The beauty of these songs is to be found in the poignance of the acceptance of their condition. There is no struggle in these songs, and they all, even the last, fade to silence without fanfare.
The final work on the disc, the extremely accomplished Chamber Symphony No.1 of 1906, which evidently caused a few punch ups in its early performances, significantly predates the preceding works on the disc. Interestingly, the musical language is much the same as that of the later works, but the emotional content anticipates them in that it is the music of a spirit that is not yet broken. No, there are no outright triumphs over adversity. There are incidences of hysterical panic fled from or brazened out. Breath is then regained before moving on to confront the next nameless terror. We hear desperate yearning and searching for something to fill an aching void, but between times there are still opportunities for repose. A love of life is still a feasible option. There is still enough hope to summon the occasional brief but optimistic fanfare. Death has not yet infected everything. The work ends on a note of confidence, but not one that is justified by the logic of the preceding material.
There has been much acclaim for the Naxos complete Schoenberg project, under the direction of Robert Craft, and deservedly so if the superb performances and recordings on this disc are representative of the rest of the series. I certainly will be looking at more of these discs. One might even dare to hope that they can win a little more acceptance for this key 20th Century composer, who remains so controversial despite his obvious genius. In his favour I would only argue that one doesn't have to be mad to understand these extraordinary works, but it probably helps.