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Greenfield
American Record Guide, May 2008

Quite a package. One could imagine a Jessye Norman in her prime trumpeting out Schoenberg's orchestral songs with greater authority than Ms Welch-Babidge here; but she is expressive in her own right, and the songs–so redolent of Wagner and Strauss–bloom quite nicely under her care. Craft is a sympathetic, heads-up accompanist; and the set comes together as a first-rate song-cycle that deserves to be better known. I won't claim to have scoured the length and breadth of the Schoenberg discography, but I don't see a lot of other recordings of these songs out there right now-which, needless to say, could influence a decision whether or not to seek this out.

The other "don't miss" is Schoenberg's fascinating treatment of Kol Nidrei, the Jewish "Chant of the Ages" sung on Yom Kippur as musical inspiration for wiping the slates clean on the Day of Atonement. Schoenberg leaves the liturgy behind (which doesn't endear his piece to Jewish Orthodoxy), adding bits of cosmological commentary declaimed vividly here by David Wilson - Johnson. How moving to hear this timelessly sad melody emanating out of the florid 20th Century hyperactivity with which it is embellished. This is a terrific piece that should be of interest to anyone who cares about sacred choral music.

'Priede auf Erden' comes across well enough as performed by the Simon Joly Chorale, but I hear more of a rapt, spiritual presence in Robert Shaw's account in his Evocation of the Spirit anthology (Telarc 80406, July/Aug 1995). It reappeared on Elegy, a disjointed set of snippets from Shaw's traversal of the choral canon for Telarc. 'Ei, du Lutte' (Oh, you little thing), a choral song Schoenberg composed at age 20, might be the happiest 64 seconds of his entire oeuvre.

Less engaging are the 6 Pieces for Male Chorus, which will be of primary interest to choral aficionados ready to be amazed by the accuracy the fellows achieve in Schoenberg's nearly impenetrable thickets of 20th Century polyphony gone wild. The Moses und Aaron excerpts fill out the program well enough, though Craft is no match for the likes of Solti or Boulez when he and the orchestra an center stage. A worthy program at any price.



Lawson Taitte
The Dallas Morning News, February 2008

Rating: A

Budget label excels with Schoenberg songs

GETTING SERIOUS: If anybody doubted Naxos' determination to fill out Robert Craft's Schoenberg series, originally begun on other labels, this should be reassuring. The vocal works here, ranging from all periods of the composer's career, are rarely performed, especially as well as they are done here.

NEW SUAVITY: Mr. Craft boldly claims that the male choral pieces have waited 70 years for a decent performance, and he may well be right. Jennifer Welch-Babbidge's soprano may be a little lightweight for the Wagnerian early songs for orchestra, but her accuracy and brightness of tone compensate. Schoenberg's late, controversial setting of the Kol nidrei may be the most important masterpiece here, and it, too, is done gorgeously by the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Simon Joly Chorale.

BOTTOM LINE: Obscure but important works by one of the greatest and most misunderstood composers, all in excellent performances.



Philip Borg-Wheeler
MusicWeb International, February 2008

This fascinating, well recorded disc, Volume VII of the Robert Craft-Schoenberg Collection, embraces a 42-year period of the composer’s creative life. The common thread here is Schoenberg’s writing for voice or voices – at its most ingratiating in the Six Songs and at its most challenging in the Six Pieces for male chorus.

The Six Songs, Op. 8 (1903-4) are decidedly late-Romantic, thickly scored and sumptuous in equal measure. Such songs as the third and sixth contain passages of great beauty and sensitivity while the fourth song is more conventional and ultimately overblown. Jennifer Welch-Babidge sings both passionately and accurately, relishing the Straussian vocal lines for which great stamina is needed. Only occasionally does her momentary shrillness or tremulousness under pressure become intrusive.

The Six Pieces for male chorus (1929-30, texts by the composer) form an extraordinary group of very wide expressive range, covering different aspects of human experience, such as Happiness, Inhibition, Obligation or Means of Expression. Four of the pieces are serial compositions. The exemplary clarity of scoring is particularly remarkable in what is a notoriously difficult medium. Landsknechte, the fifth piece, is an astonishing tour de force - effectively a slow march full of onomatopoeic sounds representing drumming and trudging feet. These Six Pieces are essential listening for those who may mistakenly think they know every aspect of Schoenberg. Perseverance is needed, but this difficult but masterly work does bring rewards. Of this set, and of the equally demanding Friede auf Erden, the Simon Joly Chorale gives accomplished performances, though not totally free from a sense of strain in the more demanding passages. Those wishing for a little more polish and sensuousness in Friede auf Erden might prefer the Tokyo Symphony Chorus under Kazuyoshi Akiyama (Montaigne).

The tiny miniature Ei, du Lütte, providing the greatest possible contrast to anyone playing the disc straight through, is pure delight. This would make a wonderful “innocent ear” test for a friend.

Schoenberg set Kol Nidre in 1938, by which time he had settled in America. A Los Angeles rabbi having asked him to arrange the traditional Kol Nidre melody, Schoenberg discovered that the text was Sephardic Spanish and therefore applied to Jews who had “gone over to Christianity”. He was also shocked that apparently “all obligations undertaken during the year should be dissolved on the Day of Atonement, which contradicts the high ethical quality of all Jewish commandments”. Schoenberg’s subsequent alterations to the Orthodox ritual resulted in a ban on the use of his version in synagogues. In his view, the Kol Nidre melody itself hardly deserved to be called a melody, as it was more of a succession of melismas all resembling each other. He selected some of these and subjected them to “serial treatment within a tonal framework”, as Malcom MacDonald has written. From the opening bars a potent atmosphere is established, well sustained in this engaging performance and enhanced by David Wilson-Johnson’s fine diction. The neglect of this compelling, dramatic, beautifully orchestrated and thoroughly accessible work can be explained only by anti-Schoenberg prejudice.

Three extracts from Moses and Aron (The Golden Calf and The Altar, Act II Scene 3) complete this disc. Here the contribution of the Philharmonia is very fine, though one or two moments of slightly untidy ensemble suggest one more take would have been a good idea. In particular, the first trombonist’s outstandingly beautiful playing deserves mention. One poignant sentence from Robert Craft’s informative booklet notes demands quotation – “An orgy follows, but at this point the excerpt ends.” (!) Well, if it’s any consolation, I suppose it would be much more disappointing if this were a DVD.

This is a thoroughly recommendable disc, an essential purchase for any Schoenberg collector. Equally, in its demonstration of the composer’s wide expressive range, it is of enormous value to anyone even remotely interested in this 20th-century master.



David Toub
Sequenza21.com, November 2007

I listened to this CD with great interest, as I hadn’t heard Kol Nidre in many years, and was not familiar with the Six Songs or the Six Pieces. Schoenberg is perhaps not as appreciated as a vocal composer, despite his having written so much for voice (including the absolutely beautiful The Book of the Hanging Gardens and the amazing opera Moses und Aron. To be honest, with the exception of the excerpt from Moses und Aron and perhaps Friede auf Erden (which I knew from an old Robert Shaw LP), this just isn’t Schoenberg’s strongest music. However, even if not his best stuff, or at least his most memorable, the works are of interest in that many of them represent his early pre-atonal style.

The Six Songs date from 1903-1904 and are pretty substantial. They are not particularly noteworthy, however, sounding like much German music of the late 19th century and lacking the intensity of Mahler or Bruckner. However, one can still detect the early stirrings of Schoenberg’s distinctive voice, at least after repeated listening. The Six Pieces date from around 1929-1930, yet are entirely tonal. These pieces are initially a genuine curiosity, since they sound nothing like the dodecaphonic works from the 20’s, until one realizes that they were written a few years before Schoenberg emigrated to the US and wrote a few better known works that were entirely tonal. That Schoenberg could, and did, write tonal music (he is known to have said something to the effect that ”There is still a lot of music to be written in the key of C,“ apparently predicting the rise of Terry Riley and minimalism in the 60’s) confirms (at least to me) that he was more interested in writing ”music“ than in writing ”serial music.“

I confess that I have never thought very much of Kol Nidre. Part of it is that it sounds too programmatic for my tastes, and part of it is that as Hebraic tunes go, the Kol Nidre is somewhat overrated. I mean, it’s not bad. But there are better melodies one could draw upon.

I do like the inclusion of the section from Moses und Aron and hopefully this will whet people’s appetite to hear the whole thing. The performance of this excerpt is quite good, almost as good as my favorite performance by Michael Gielen.

And indeed, Robert Craft and all the musicians and vocalists do a very commendable job with the music. I’m very surprised this is on what amounts to a ”budget“ label.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2007

Attach the name Richard Strauss to the Six Songs for Soprano and Orchestra and audiences would flock to hear them. But give a dog a bad name and it sticks, the sight of the name 'Schoenberg' guaranteed to empty concert hall seats even after a hundred years. For those still to discover the fact that early Schoenberg is an extension of Wagner and Strauss, the big, sumptuous and highly charged soprano songs belong to the era of German eroticism that gave us Tristan and Isolde. Completed in 1904, they are very taxing, often high in the register and set against the large orchestra, the young American soprano, Jennifer Welch-Babidge, never sparing her voice even in the loud passages, while she offers a creamy quality whenever Schoenberg allows. Friede auf Erden is performed in its original unaccompanied version for mixed chorus, and is a tremendously challenging work to perform, the London-based Simon Joly Choral singing with total conviction. The Six Pieces from 1930 enters the composer's atonal world, but given time the piece grows on you. Thirty and more years ago it was almost beyond choirs, but now that it can be pitched with unfailingly accurate intonation it comes one step closer to enjoyment. The changes Schoenberg made to the traditional words of Kol Nidre brought a negative response from the strict Jewish world, but musically it is a work that is easy to like. For all its wealth of orchestral colours, Moses and Aron cannot disguise that we are deep in an atonal world. A most valuable addition to Robert Craft's Schoenberg edition, the Philharmonia is in superb form, with recordings made at London's Abbey Road Studios of excellent quality.    






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