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Em Marshall
MusicWeb International, December 2006

A good selection of Schoenberg works here receive excellent performances on this Naxos release under Robert Craft’s expert direction. The disc is Volume 4 of the Music of Arnold Schoenberg in the Robert Craft Collection.

Serenade contains some excellent ensemble playing, vibrant and lively, with an exuberant first movement March and a moving Sonnet by Petrarch, where the deeply impassioned words and lovely picture-painting (the lion’s roar, for example) come across well in Varcoe’s typically gorgeously rich, dark timbre. The Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble imbue Dance Steps, with its prominent mandolin part, with a great sense of fun. Overall this is a brilliant performance of a rather difficult work.

Schoenberg’s development of the twelve-tone method reached its maturity in Variations. It was written as something of a homage to Bach, and uses the BACH motif - first heard in the introduction and then in the second and fifth variation before it comes to dominate the finale. Schoenberg said that it was his aim to “resurrect an old classicism in order to make a new one possible”, and this work includes some wonderful counterpoint in the second variation. Again, it is fiendishly difficult to play, given the inclusion of the challenge to string players to play in the range above their own – the double bass playing the cello range, the cello the viola’s, the viola the violin’s, and the violins an octave higher than usual. The Philharmonia cope wonderfully well, however, with excellently incisive, precise and lively playing, which Craft neither drives too fast nor allows to lose momentum.

In 1928 Schoenberg transcribed for orchestra a triple fugue in E flat by Bach. This was in the same year that he composed the Variations; it is fascinating to compare the two very different, but both Bach-influenced, works. The Fugue was first conducted by Webern. The two Choral Preludes, Schmicke dich, O liebe Seele and Komm, Gott Schopfer, heiliger Geist, were transcribed six years earlier, in 1922.

There is a beautifully luminous sound to the Fuga, and the Philharmonia capture the serenity at the beginning very well. The end of the work is given a gloriously full and radiant sound. The choral preludes are very grandiose and the performance here reflects that. Yet whatever one feels about these orchestrations - and they are a little too overblown, brash and unsubtle for my purist ear! - they are certainly well performed.

A disc I can certainly recommend to any lovers of Schoenberg!



Chakwin
American Record Guide, October 2006

I reviewed the performance of the Serenade (Nov/Dec 1995) and wished it had been a reis­sue of the Shirley-Quirk with the London Sin­fonietta under David Atherton that Decca recorded long ago. Boulez on Sony is a very good and available alternative. This one offers some fine playing by New York free-lancers, most notably clarinettist Charles Neidich, and a commendable vocal rendition by baritone Stephen Varcoe (called a bass here) but the Boulez has more character.

The Variations have been recorded in performances of incredible insight and refinement by such conductors as Dohnanyi, Karajan, and Boulez. The Philharmonia playing is quite good, but Craft's interpretation is not compelling when compared with the others. All three are available mid-priced.

The Bach pieces are presented in orchestrations by Schoenberg. The fugue is the famous St Anne in E- flat, and the other two are chorale preludes. Schoenberg was a master orchestrator and loved Bach's music. These are light, undemanding works.

Craft, who is a perceptive and eloquent writer on music, wrote the excellent booklet notes here, and like all good notes, they made me wish they were langer. The sound is more than acceptable.

At Naxos's price, this is a good introduction to Schoenberg or a good supplement for a listener who already knows some of his music and wants more.



Christopher Ballantine
August 2006

Featuring pieces from the l92Os, the disc is likely to have wide appeal, as much for its extraordinary diversity as for the sheer quality and historical importance- of at least of the works on it.

Kraft has long been a dependable and perceptive advocate of Schoenberg’s music. The high energy, intensity and fun of his presentation of the Serenade, Op. 24 gives substance to the composer’s claim at the of 1923, scion after the work was completed, that at last he had found a method of composition that enabled him to write with youthful ‘Freedom and fantasy’. (The work uses serial procedures throughout, even though only one movement has a 12-note row.) Archly sardonic, this delightful work bounces with a brittle, humorous brilliance, particularly in the performance given here: one that sharply emphasizes its Stravinskyan features. (The Stravinsky of L ‘histoire du soldat is the genie whose presence seems most evident: that piece preceded the Serenade just a few years; both works are conceived for an instrumental septet; and Kraft himself is of course most commonly associated with Stravinsky.) The stellar group of musicians who make up the ensemble deliver a performance of sparkling clarity and pin-point precision; in the ‘Sonnet’ movement, Stephen Varcoe is the mellifluously toned bass. Only one feature disturbed me: the rapid vibrato of Rolf Schutte’s violin. That feature is certainly emblematic of the high intensity of the performance, but it’s so unrelenting that it soon sounds quite manic.

In the performance of the Variations, Op. 31, one of Schoenberg’s orchestral masterpieces, what is so impressive is the easy familiarity, the comfort, of Craft’s navigation through, and clarification of, the composer’s complex rhetoric, That, indeed, to be his primary concern: so the emotional temperature is cool, even in the more affectively trident movements, Admirable as it is, this is a rendering more memorable for its lucidity, balance and analytical sharpness than for whatever meaning the work’s radical ‘constructionist’ ethic might portend. In one way — perhaps a music-historical way — such an approach is appropriate: it certainly draws attention to the sense in which the piece stands, structurally, as a crucial link in the evolutionary unfolding of orchestral music in the twentieth century. The fact that the orchestra’s sound is a little lightweight, and somewhat lacking in density and depth, seems unrelated to this: more a matter of recording than of performance.

Closing the disc are Schoenberg’s orchestral transcriptions of three of Bach’s organ works: transcriptions that are the bane of Bach’s ‘devotees’ (as Adorno termed them) as much as they are the delight of those who cherish Bach as a living legacy. And, of course, they’re thrilling for most concert audiences, the greatest of these because of what it clarifies and illuminates about the original — is the transcription of the ‘St Anne’ Fugue in F flat, for five voices; it’s a glorious realization, and Kraft and the Philharmonia Orchestra give it an enthusiastic and rousing performance. Of the two chorale preludes, Schmucke dich, 0 liebe Seele is the less successful, not so much because Schoenberg represents it as a stately dance, nor even because of the ornamentations he added to the cello-based chorale melody, but because the transcription mainly adds bombast; it therefore appears gratuitous. But the second chorale prelude, Komm, Gott Schopfer, heiliger Geist, is quite another matter. On the one hand, both its transcription for full orchestra and its now almost gigue-like character seem appropriate to Bach’s jubilant, extrovert treatment of Luther’s version of the Veni creator spiritus hymn. On the other, of course, Schoenberg’s adaptation is also just the last in a linked line of adaptations stretching back to old Luther himself.






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11:21:34 PM, 21 August 2014
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