These 1986 recordings by James Levine and the Berlin Philharmonic are simply astonishing, and widely viewed as among the best performances of these Second Vienna School works. The works in question are from Schoenberg's atonal period, not the later 12-tone period. There are those who have a hard time grasping that Schoenberg mounted two revolutions, and that the first was the more fundamental.
The "5 Orchesterstucke op. 16" (Five Pieces for Orchestra) of 1909 is one of Schoenberg's masterpieces, and perhaps the most concentrated expression of the break with tonality (the vocal works "Erwartung," "Pierrot Lunaire" and "Die Gluckliche Hand" also come from this period). There is no system, just five glittering gems of pure imagination. Schoenberg was a good friend of the painter Wassily Kandinsky, and they carried out the revolution against representation together in the musical and visual realms of art, breaking through to total abstraction. Schoenberg's students Webern and Berg followed him twice, into atonality, and then later in the 1920s into his new 12-tone system (which couldn't leave fingerprints as it didn't yet exist). So Berg's "Wozzeck," for instance, is atonal, and his later "Lulu" is serialist, as 12-tone writing came to be called. Here we have Webern's "6 Stucke fur Orchester op. 6" from 1909, another brilliant atonal work even more compressed than Schoenberg's. Berg's "3 Orchesterstucke op. 6" from several years later (1914-5) is longer, larger, and more Mahlerian.
Levine is of course best-known as an opera conductor. He is celebrating 40 years at the Metropolitan Opera this year! But he has always included the Second Vienna School in his orchestral repertoire, as well as other modernist works, and so while not as definitively associated with these works as Pierre Boulez, he has a long, intimate knowledge of the music. These are arguably the best performances and recordings of the Schoenberg and Berg. The Boulez recordings should be heard as well -- the 1976 BBC Symphony Orchestra recording of "Five Pieces" on Sony especially is superb. (It's included in this 5-disc box -- see my review.) And I would say the best available "Six Pieces" by Webern is Dohnanyi's with the Cleveland Orchestra (see my review).
These works still sound radical today -- imagine what they sounded like in 1909! The break with tonality opened up vast spaces for the avant-garde. The 12-tone system, serialism, was one influential possibility within this space. Too much contemporary music for my taste seems inclined to limit its forays beyond conventional tonality to a pretty Debussian chromaticism. Schoenberg was bolder, and Levine leads the Berlin Philharmonic to some of the most powerful and convincing performances on record of this revolutionary music.
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