More than 50 years after his death, the music of Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951) remains difficult and controversial. There is no other great composer whose works provoke such a broad range of reactions from listeners. Schoenberg's music developed markedly during his life. It deserves patience and careful hearing. A series of recordings on the budget-priced Naxos label by scholar and conductor Robert Craft offer an excellent point of entry for adventurous music lovers willing to engage with Schoenberg. Many of the Craft recordings are reissues of earlier releases on the Koch label while others are new. Craft's recordings are available in both single CDs and in box sets. There are two box sets of Craft's Schoenberg available, the first of which includes five CDs and a broad cross-section of Schoenberg's music. The Works of Arnold Schoenberg, Vol. 1 The second box set, which I am reviewing here, includes six CDs and a further broad sampling of Schoenberg. The works range in date of composition from 1895 to 1948. The earlier set focuses more on Schoenberg's later, 12 tone compositions while the current set includes more of Schoenberg's pivotal earlier works dating from roughly 1906 - 1911. The following paragraphs offer a brief summary of the highlights of this compilation.
Schoenberg's pivotal works begin with the Chamber Symphony No. 1, opus 9 (1906). Scored for ten winds and five strings, the Chamber Symphony is a taut work in a single movement in which Schoenberg combines the late romantic style of Wagner and Strauss with a musical modernism featuring the use of the whole-tone scale as well as of atonality. The second transitional work in this set is Schoenberg's second string quartet, opus 10 (1908) which followed the Chamber Symphony. The quartet is a tragic, difficult work which moves into atonality in its second, third, and fourth movements. The two final movements set poems of Stephan George, (1868 - 1933) The Fred Sherry String Quartet and soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge perform this seminal work. The third of Schoenberg's critical transitional works included in the set is the monodrama "Erwartung" opus 17 (1909) set for solo soprano and large orchestra. Erwartung is romantic in theme and modernist in its musical language. It is a work of about 28 minutes in which the singer wanders through the forest declaiming and mourning for her lost lover whom she has killed in a jealous rage. Rarely performed, Erwartung is stream-of-conscious and disturbing music.
Schoenberg's earlier compositions were late romantic in character. Several of these works presented in this set show their connections and differences from his subsequent compositions. In 1902, Schoenberg composed his massive orchestral work, Pelleas und Melissande, based upon the same play by Maeterlink that Debussy used for his opera. Schoenberg's Pelleas is a large-scale, Straussian rendering of the story. Earlier, in 1901, Schoenberg had begun work on his massive Gurre-Lieder for large orchestra, soloists, and chorus. He did not complete the orchestration until 1911. This work is a story of passion and adultery which sets a text by the Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen. Craft conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in this outsize, 2CD work which also features the Simon Joly Chorale and a case of outstanding, if relatively little-known soloists. A little known but fine example of early Schoenberg included in this set is a collection of six songs for soprano and orchestra, opus8, dating from 1903-1904.
The later Schoenberg begins on this compilation with his famous work in Sprectstimme (speaking-singing) style Pierrot Lunaire, opus 21 (1912). This is romantically decadent music in a cabaret style that is also Schoenberg's first venture into full atonality. It is performed here by Anja Silja. Other works from this period include the Four Orchestral Songs opus 22 (1916) sung by Mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers.
Schoenberg's late twelve-tone method of composition is shown in this compilation by the selections from his opera Moses und Aron (1932) and from his idiosyncratic setting of the Jewish prayer, Kol Nidre, opus 39 (1939). Both these works also show Schoenberg's return to the Judaism of his birth, in 1931-1932. Schoenberg also continued to write relatively more conservative music during his twelve tone years. Some of these works, such as the suite in G for String Orchestra (1934) and the Six A Cappella Mixed Choruses (1928, 1948) are included in this compilation and offer a good entry to the composer's more difficult styles.
This set is invaluable for listeners wanting to learn about Schoenberg and about Twentieth Century music. For those interested, links to the individual CDs in the set are provided below.
Schoenberg: Pelleas und Melisande; Erwartung
Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire
Schoenberg: Six A Cappella Mixed Choruses
Schoenberg: Six Songs for Soprano and Orchestra