Budget-priced recordings offer an outstanding opportunity to expand one's musical horizons. Thus, the Naxos label has recently released a five-CD compilation of recordings of the music of Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951) by the noted scholar and conductor, Robert Craft. My understanding is that several similar compilations of Craft-Schoenberg are in process. These recordings had been released in the mid-1990's on the Koch label before being reissued individually on Naxos in the last few years and then combined in a five-CD set. I have familiarity with some of Schoenberg but wanted to take the opportunity these releases present to hear his music further and discuss it for interested readers on Amazon. Schoenberg, the founder of the so-called "Second Viennese School" remains a difficult, controversial composer, primarily for his development of the twelve-tone atonal method of composition relatively late in his career.
As do the other releases in this set, this CD includes both major and less significant works of Schoenberg. The major work is the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 which dates from 1909. The relatively minor works are two transcriptions of the music of other composers, the Cello Concerto (after G.M. Monn) which dates from 1932 and Schoenberg's 1937 orchestration of Brahms's Piano Quartet in g minor, Brahms op. 25. Craft conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in the Five Pieces and the Philharmonia Orchestra in the two transcriptions.
The Five Pieces for Orchestra is a densely-packed work of about 15 minutes. Schoenberg gave names to each of the pieces after his publisher prodded him to do so. By 1909, Schoenberg was composing atonally, (sometimes called pantonally) but he had not developed the 12-tone row. Schoenberg's music is sometimes dismissed as overly cerebral or intellectual. This does him a disservice. Craft begins his notes for this volume with a statement of Schoenberg's artistic aim written at about the same time as this piece:
"Art belongs to the unconscious. One must express oneself directly. Not one's taste, or one's upbringing, or one's intelligence, knowledge, or skill. Not all these acquired characteristics, but that which is inborn, instinctive."
For all that Schoenberg fairly described his musical aim, the Five Pieces are difficult and concentrated indeed. The short pieces are tied together be repeated motifs. Each one begins with a short introductory phrase which becomes the basis for the movement. Phrases are repeated and developed with differences in tempo, rhythm, chord structure, and instrumentation. (Schoenberg shows his mastery as an orchestrator here and in the remainder of this CD.) Loud, highly dissonant sections of the work alternate with quieter, lyrical portions. The highlight of the work is in the final piece, marked "the Obligato Recitative" which takes materials from the earlier sections and works them into a climactic conclusion. The Five Pieces demand careful listening but the work repays the effort.
The remaining two works are transcriptions composed well after Schoenberg had developed his 12-tone method and after he had composed his operatic masterpiece in that idiom, "Moses und Aron". In these two works, Schoenberg seems to be resting somewhat and attempting to compose in a more accessible style. The cello concerto after Monn was composed for Pablo Casals who declined to play it. Monn was a late baroque, early classical composer, and Schoenberg's transcription has an astringent, neoclassical feel. Monn's original concerto was for the harpsichord. Schoenberg's transcription is notoriously difficult to play with its solo part high in the cello's register and its extensive use of double stops. I had the sense that the music doesn't lie well on the cello. With its orchestration and harmonization, Schoenberg's transcription has a distinctly modernist tone. It is unmistakably the work of a modern composer writing in an early classical idiom, similar in that regard to many works of Stravinsky and to Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony." Robert Sherry admirably performs the cello solo.
Schoenberg's transcription of the Brahms g minor piano quartet is better-known and more successful than his Monn transcription. Schoenberg said that he transposed this work for orchestra because the piano played a too dominant role in Brahms's quartet. Schoenberg's transcription is recognizably Brahms, but, as with the Monn, it is its own piece and has a modern flavor in its harmony, orchestration and angularity. The orchestration is at its strongest in the concluding Hungarian rondo in which Schoenberg makes great use of the xylophone, cymbals, and other percussion. The work is a combination of late romanticism with modernism. It is accessible and enjoyable.
I am looking forward to hearing more of Schoenberg in these performances by Robert Craft.