New Straits Times (Malaysia)
, December 2001
"IT is amazing that no one thought of issuing the complete piano solo works of the Second Viennese School of composers on one CD till Naxos came out with this disc in 1999.
For the total works of Schoenberg, played at the slowest speeds (as here), last just under an hour, and the single works of Berg and Webern together only 20 minutes. A big cheer then for Naxos' enterprise and generosity.
Of the three composers Berg, for his Romantic warmth, has always been the most accessible and popular. Not, however, in his official opus 1, the least attractive piece on this disc.
The culmination and only completed of six student attempts at composing a sonata form movement, his Sonata is a Mahler-fevered but nevertheless cerebral hothouse of inter-related musical cells weaving above, beneath and through each other, permeated by an angular bony beauty which listeners should at least appreciate, even if they cannot love, after a few hearings.
It is the generally colder, more clinical Schoenberg who is here far more accomplished and pleasant to the ear, precisely for his impeccable balance between form and emotion, and technique and spontaneity, his clear textures, and an Austrian lightness and wit.
Over four decades after my student years, when I first encountered them, the first two pieces of opus 11 (1909) no longer sound brutally atonal but in fact like what they have always been, meditative and dramatic late Romantic tone poems. The third piece, however, is as adventurous now as at first.
Of the initially forbidding later sets of 1920-23, the Suite for Piano, op. 25 is a fascinating Baroque-structured set of dances and pieces in Schoenberg's newly-discovered serial mode, its opening Prludium a breathless toccata, the middle Intermezzo an intense slow movement, and the three dances, Gavotte, Menuett and Gigue, graceful, humorous and spirited through and through.
As for the Five Piano Pieces, op. 23, they are surely the culmination of Schoenberg's writing for the piano, the quiet opening three-part invention and shimmering nocturne and Waltz (nos. 3 and 5) alternating with explosive (no. 2) and whimsical (no. 4) scherzi.
Finally, in Webern's Variations, op. 27 we have totally concentrated serial music that is not at all difficult to understand, since the sparsely noted theme and variations are easily identified, their diamond-like precision and glitter an impressive climax to the Second Viennese School's oeuvre for piano solo.
Quoting two of Webern's pupils in his brochure note, that the composer stressed his Variations 'structural intricacies must give rise to a profound expressiveness' in performance, Peter Hill applies the same principle to his Berg and Schoenberg interpretations.
Played this way, his Berg sonata is certainly more delicate, though not necessarily more attractive, than, say, Jean-Jacques Dunki's forthright account (on Jecklin-disco JD 643-2), which includes some of the earlier sonata fragments (reviewed by me on Oct 6, 1999).
But his Webern is absolutely magnificent, the only way henceforth to play it, compared to which Charles Rosen's in the complete Webern works on Sony Classical SM3K 45845-3CDs (reviewed on April 5 last year) now sounds pedestrian.
Applied to Schoenberg, Hill's Debussy-soft and slowest tempi bring out the full magic of the quiet opus 23 pieces as also the opus 25 dances and the two final concert works, opus 33 A and B.
And surely no stronger advocate can be found for the notorious Six Little Piano Pieces, op. 19 to convince those who consider them mere hoaxes that each is marvellously, in Schoenberg's own description of Webern's Six Bagatelles, op. 9, 'a novel in a single gesture'...given its bargain price and the extra Berg and Webern, buyers should opt for the Naxos disc."