on 5 February 2013
You may be thinking that listening to nearly five hours of Schoenberg's lieder would be a difficult going, but on the contrary, there was more to the composer than one may think, there are some real gems here, especially in the early songs! The idea that all the music composed by Schoenberg is atonal is far from the mark, his musical output is usually divided into three stages, the first period, 1894-1907, is representative of late romantic German tradition of the late nineteenth century along with the impressionist movement, therefore showing the influence of his teacher and soon to be brother-in-law, Alexander Zemlinsky. The second period, 1908-1922, sees Schoenberg experimenting with what came to be described as `free atonality', although not by Schonberg himself. The third and final period from 1922 onwards is marked by Schoenberg's development of his `dodecaphonic' or `twelve-tone' method of composition. However, this in itself is misleading as there are more traditional tonal compositions from this later period.
The first disc opens with a collection of nine posthumous songs, six of them receiving the first recording, dating from between 1893 and 1900, and one is struck by their impressionistic style, you could almost believe you are listening to Debussy in German! These are followed by the Vier Lieder Op. 2 and the Sechs Lieder Op. 3, both these sets showing a reliance on the German romantic tradition. These are however followed by Das Buch der hängenden Gärten Op. 15, these songs were composed in 1908and 1909 and show Schoenberg's early attempts at atonalism, despite this there is some interesting and accessible music here. The whole of this disc is sung by the baritone, Konrad Jarnot, whose tone is wonderful throughout seeming at home in all the songs whether they be in the impressionistic, romantic or atonal traditions.
The second disc could be described as a collection of early songs as all the songs here were composed before 1903, and again with sixteen songs receiving their premier recording. Although less impressionistic in nature than those featured on disc one there are some wonderful songs here which would fit nicely into most recitals of lieder. Probably the most famous songs here are the Cabaret Songs which are given a superb performance by Claudia Barainsky, who sings all the songs on this disc.
Disc three is dominated by the premier recording of the original piano version of Schoenberg's most famous song cycle of all, the Gurre-Lieder, dating from 1901 this is 57 minutes of sheer beauty. Yes, the piano version cannot compete with the impressionistic wonder which is the orchestral version, but it does give you more insight into the work. Melanie Diener and Makus Schäfer are well matched in this work, as they are in the five posthumous songs which begin this disc, while Anke Vondung is an excellent wood dove!
The final disc is a real amalgam, beginning with Zwei Gesäng Op. 1 and ending with the Drei Lieder Op. 48 it presents songs from each of the three stages of Schoenberg's compositional development, we even get his take on the German folksong. Again there is some wonderful singing here from Diener, Jarnot and Mayer.
The pianist Urs Liska deserves a special mention here, not only does he seem to have a special affinity with all the singers here, he is an equal partner in these performances not just an accompanist, but he also puts his musicologists hat on and produces the excellent booklet essay that accompanies the set.
This is a wonderful set with nothing to be afraid of, one that gives a real insight into the composer, and especially with the 37 songs which receive their premier recording, into Schoenberg's early compositional style. The only drawback with this set is the lack of song translations, the full German texts are there, but it will take some work searching the internet for translations. However, despite this reservation, I can't recommend this set highly enough!