Classical Reissue Reviews

The RIAS Second Viennese School Project [TrackList follows] – Soloists/ RIAS Choir & Orch/Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Radio-Sym./various cond. – Audite (4 CDs)

Even after 100 years, the music of the Second Viennese School challenges and offends, our musical and intellectual complacency assaulted by sounds and textures testing the limits of our aesthetic prejudices.

Published on December 31, 2012

The RIAS Second Viennese School Project [TrackList follows] – Soloists/ RIAS Choir & Orch/Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Radio-Sym./various cond. – Audite (4 CDs)

The RIAS Second Viennese School Project = SCHOENBERG: Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21; Chamber Symphony, Op. 9; Piano Concerto, Op. 42; Phantasy for Violin and Piano, Op. 47 (2 versions); Das Buch der haengenden Gaerten, Op. 15; Psalm 130, Op. 50B; 3 Piano Pieces, Op. 11; 6 Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19; 5 Piano Pieces, Op. 23; Piano Pieces, Op. 33a, b; String Trio, Op. 45; Suite in G Major; BERG: Lyric Suite for String Quartet; 4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 5; Seven Early Songs; Schliesse mir die Augen beide (2 versions);  WEBERN: Passacaglia for Orchestra, Op. 1; 5 Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10; 4 Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7; J. STRAUSS: Rosen aus dem Sueden (arr. Schoenberg); Schatzwalzer (arr. Webern) – Eduard Steuermann, piano/ Else C. Kraus, piano/ Rudolf Kolisch, violin/ Alan Willman, p./  Tibor Varga, violin/ Ernst Krenek, p./ Heinrich Geuser, clarinet/ Klaus Billing, p./ Vegh String Quartet/ Erich Roehn, violin/ Ernst Doberitz, viola/ Arthur Troester, cello/ Magda Laszlo, sop./ Lothar Broddock, p./ Evely Lear, sop./ Hans Hilsdorf, p./ Andre Gertler, violin/ Diane Andersen, p./ Bastiaan-Quartett/ Emil Hammermeister, harmonium/ Klaus Billing, p./ Suzanne Danco, sop./ Hermann Reutter, p./ Irmen Burmester, narrator/ Hans Peter Schmitz, flute/ Alfred Buerkner, bass clarinet/ Hans Bastiaan, violin/ Walter Mueller, viola/ Werner Haupt, cello/ Josef Rufer, cond./ Peter Stadlen, p./ RIAS Sym. Orch./ Winfried Zillig, cond./ RIAS Ch. Choir/ Guenther Arndt, cond./ Berlin Philharmonic Orch./ Ferenc Fricsay, cond./ Berlin Radio-Sym./ Arthur Rother, cond./ Bruno Maderna, cond. (Webern Op. 10) – Audite 21.412 (4 CDs) 77:03, 79:16, 76:41, 67:37 (10/5/12)  [Distr. by Naxos] ****: 

As it becomes apparent, perhaps painfully, that most of the music represented as “dodecaphonic” after the twelve-tone innovations by composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) has celebrated at least 100 years of musical influence; and even having suffered the calumnies of having been labeled “degenerate art” by Nazis and their ilk, it has endured and still finds adherents.  With the breakdown of traditional tonality at the end of the Nineteenth Century, the fin-de-siecle invited the kind of radical skepticism and subjectivity of experience – via Freud, Kierkegaard, Einstein, Bergson, Nietzsche – that demanded a new psychology and a new aesthetic.

Ferruccio Busoni took up the polemical banner with his re-assessment of the musical horizon in Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music (1907, 1916), made into real form via conductor Hermann Scherchen (1891-1966) and his New Music movement; later, during and after the National Socialist repression (1933-1945), Scherchen continued in Switzerland and Belgium to champion music specifically outlawed by the Nazis.  Schoenberg’s two major acolytes Alban Berg (1885-1935) and Anton Webern (1883-1945) committed themselves to Schoenberg’s “unswerving musicality” of expression, with Berg’s devotion to warmth and lyricism of feeling, and Webern’s insistence on clarity and geometry in the course of pulverized and “discrete moments in time.”  But it remains equally clear that this body of music has resisted easy assimilation by us, who have nurtured ourselves on traditional tonal arrangements with their concomitant insistence on melodic beauty.  So, if you venture to this assemblage of kindred spirits, 1949-1965, tread slowly.

You might follow my lead and begin with Schoenberg’s accessible Suite in G Major In Olden Style” (1934) performed by the Hungarian master Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963) and the Berlin Philharmonic  after WW II, at the Titania-Palast 28 November 1949.  The music asserts Schoenberg’s “baroque” voice as touched by a modern acoustic, perhaps influenced by Hindemith. Fricsay also exerts his idiosyncratic Romanticism upon the Kammersymphonie, Op. 9 (1906) in a reading from RIAS (10 January 1953), reveling in the sharp interjections of sound and texture shifts, the feeling of intimacy and exotic color that mark Fricsay’s manner in his beloved Bartok. Opening this disc, however, we have the 1946 String Trio as performed by Erich Roehn, Ernst Dobernitz, and Arthur Troester.  Schoenberg conceived the music after a heart attack: “a humorous representation of my sickness.” It jumps and leaps, twists and slides in multifarious directions, episodic and mercurial. Roehn, who played principal violin for Furtwaengler during the war years, plays with virtuosic fervor but not the same detachment we hear from another disciple: Rudolf Kolisch, who plays “correctly but not beautifully.” The 1912 setting of poems by Albert Giraud, his Pierrot Lunaire (rec. 3, 10 March 1949) continues to challenge our assumptions about song and sound, the Sprechstimme’s technique working in the context of an atonal musical syntax. Whether one wishes to follow the course of the melodrama—discourses on love, sex, violence, religion, crime, and blasphemy—depends on one’s capacity to accept the conventions of the musical means, utilizing numerological significances from the number 7: and here, we might “digress” to the reaction in the mind of Thomas Mann, who responded with his own version of numerology in his The Magic Mountain.  Narrator Irmen Burmester meticulously dances between cabaret speech and slippery wheedling, while her instrumental ensemble weaves intricate, conventionalized forms of rondo, passacaglia, canon, and fugue. 

In another form of musical “atavism,” we have Anton Webern’s 1908 Passacaglia for Orchestra, Op. 1 (1 February 1965) in a performance by the RIAS Symphony under Arthur Rother. The piece represents the advanced Romantic syntax Webern had gleaned from studies with Schoenberg; like his early Im Sommerwind (1904) it bears little resemblance to the serial compositions that sustain his reputation. Next, we plummet into a different universe with the 1911 Five Pieces for Orchestra—here in performance by RIAS Berlin under Bruno Maderna 5 December 1961—a demonstration of Webern’s notion of Klangfarbenmelodie, the application of tone-color-melody in pulverized musical clusters.  The incredibly spare Four Pieces for Violin and Piano (1906) compress the very essence of gesture, timbre, and dynamics: Andre Gertler and Diane Andersen (7 May 1958) intone what violinist Felix Galimir had first plied under Webern’s supervision. Theodor Adorno once remarked that any continuation of these concentrated works would have to be a sigh alone. That both Schoenberg and Webern arranged music by Johann Strauss, Jr. for village or salon ensemble may strike us as an anomaly until we make the connection that their music meant to extend and not defy the Viennese tradition. The performances by the Bastiaan Quartet with harmonium and piano (18 February 1950) convey the gracious lilted charm that their more resplendent realizations with the Vienna Philharmonic might offer in more Technicolor.

Whatever musical “success” Schoenberg enjoyed was based mainly on the works he created both in the Wagnerian and early dodecaphonic style, 1904-1924. “Forced into paradise,” as he characterized his exile from Germany and emigration to America, he became more consciously Jewish only near the end, completing A Survivor from Warsaw in 1947 and his Psalm 130 “De profundis clamavi” in 1950 and dedicating it to the State of Israel in honor of the Holocaust. The studio recording (7 March 1958) under Guenther Arndt conveys an eerie ghastly beauty, already looking forward to the Joseph Schildkraut episode from The Twilight Zone, “Deathshead Revisited.”  The Book of the Hanging Gardens, Op. 15 (1908-1909) manages the transition between conventional musical syntax and atonality, when the doomed love affair (in poems by Stefan George) disintegrates the garden. The power of sheer desire and yearning – expressed poignantly by Suzanne Danco and pianist Hermann Reutter on 3 November 1955 – has overcome classical restraint and tradition; thus, the “garden” or temenos of protected structures has been irrevocably violated.   The celebrated sets of piano pieces are performed  (18 June 1963) by Edward Steuermann (1892-1964) and Else C. Kraus (20 May 1951). Both Steuermann and Kraus came directly from the Schoenberg tradition that meant to abolish “the arbitrariness of the interpreter” and impose an inflexible standard of musical realization. Rudolf Kolisch, too, imbibed this objective aesthetic. The tension between the automaton and the spontaneous musician becomes unbearable: for Schoenberg’s system to work, only the recording suffices, since it freezes any music into one posture. Steuermann presents a dry, spare world into which life-giving meters, rhythms, and timbres insinuate themselves.  The 1942 Piano Concerto, here given live by Peter Stadlen and RIAS under Winfried Zillig (6 February 1949) at the Titnia-Palast, Berlin, presents us in chaste yet relatively free style, a work that had a programmatic” thesis hewn into its one long tone-row, whose permutations convey the change after the “Life was so easy” presentation of the original row and its associations for Schoenberg before his forced exile. The work’s being built up by the conventions of the 12-tone system leads us to feel its “searching” for a sense of continuity other than mechanical, a human variable that only committed interpreters can supply.

That leaves the survey of music by Alban Berg: the most successful of the serialists. By now, the “secrets of the Lyric Suite” (1925-1926) are sufficiently well known: a palindromic, five-movement structure based on a tone row ripe with pitch intervals and superficially dedicated to Alexander Zemlinsky but really inscribed to inamorata Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, quoting both Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony and the Tristan chord of Wagner. Like Schumann, Berg’s arranges notes to form anagrams of his and Hanna initials that progress from pleasant comradeship through passion, ecstasy, and eventual despair. The Vegh-Quartett (10 November 1963) intones the passionate work, likely the most successful of all serial compositions, structurally and emotionally. The simple shifts in register and timbre replace the traditional notion of “development,” and the tempo changes and their respective affects insure our appreciation of the musical drama.

Perhaps even more virtuosic is Berg’s achievement in his Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano (1913), here performed by Heinrich Geuser and Klaus Billing in Studio RIAS (19 September 1953). The poetic and visceral converge through echo tones, shifting registers, flutter tonguing, and the application of atonality that insures a degree of unpredictability emotionally. The bravura comes in early, when Geuser must conclude No. 1 with 18 low Gs. The use of major sevenths in No. 3 might be construed as impressionist. Lyric in shape, the pieces, manage a ternary form by repeating their rhythmic impulse or their color-contour. No. 4 becomes rather wild, but it leaves on a pp major seventh chord that dissolves into vapor. The 1905-1908 Seven Early Songs have Magda Laszlo and Lothar Broddack (4 July 1958) to deliver their post-Wagnerian ethos, though Nacht has debts to Debussy and Richard Strauss. The most attractive of the set, Die Nachtigall, has a decidedly Brahms affect, and its application would emerge in Schoenberg’s assessment of “Brahms the Progressive.”  The most sensual is Liebesode, written in 1906, and its three-note descending motif invokes various gestures of hand and arm that embrace the possibilities, musical and amorous. Last, Berg’s first true atonal song, “Schliesse mir die Augen beide,” after a poem by Theodor Storm, sung here by Evelyn Lear (5 February 1960) with Hans Hildorf, piano. It has two versions, 1907 and 1925, respectively, the latter fully atonal and registering the sweet despair in the words, “Let my suffering gain rest beneath your hand.”

—Gary Lemco




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