, November 2008
This latest instalment in the Naxos Robert Craft series contains a mixture of newly recorded items and one work, the Violin Concerto, that has already appeared on Koch Classics in 2000. Comprising largely music composed during the last ten years of Schoenberg’s life, the disc also reflects to a large extent the émigré composer’s preoccupation with his Jewish heritage as his life drew to a close.
The disc opens with the powerful Survivor from Warsaw, Schoenberg’s moving response to a Nazi atrocity in the Second World War. Schoenberg gave this a universal significance by playing down the Warsaw location and concentrating instead on the atrocity itself, an incident in which weak, elderly and starved Jews were systematically liquidated by the Nazi cohorts, and one that was repeated time and again throughout the war. This work had huge personal significance to the composer, as he wrote in 1948:
“Now, what the text of the Survivor means to me: it means at first a warning to all Jews, never to forget what has been done to us, never to forget that even people who did not do it themselves, agreed with them and many of them found it necessary to treat us this way. We should never forget this, even such things have not been done in the manner in which I describe in the Survivor. This does not matter. The main thing is, that I saw it in my imagination.”
If memory serves, Craft has recorded this before, with Simon Callow as narrator, but this is a new version with David Wilson-Johnson and the Philharmonia. While the choral and orchestral contribution make their mark under Craft’s watchful baton, I have heard performances of the narration which were more vividly re-enacted than that by Wilson-Johnson. In particular the delineation of the different episodes in the story and of its various characters, from the prisoners to the German sergeant, could have been more sharply defined. This is a work which demands commitment and involvement over accuracy to the score. However the final chorus makes an overwhelming effect. In the same 1948 letter Schoenberg wrote. “The Shema Jisroel at the end has a special meaning to me. I think, the Shema Jisroel is the ‘Glaubensbekenntnis,’ the confession of the Jew. It is our thinking of the one, eternal, God who is invisible, who forbids imitation, who forbids to make a picture and all these things, which you perhaps have realised when you read my Moses und Aron und Der biblische Weg [Moses and Aaron and the Biblical Way]. The miracle is, to me, that all these people who might have forgotten, for years, that they are Jews, suddenly facing death, remember who they are.”
The Prelude to Genesis was written as part of the same commission from the composer and publisher Nathaniel Shilkret that resulted in Stravinsky’s miniature cantata Babel. Schoenberg’s was one of a series of works written to reflect various events in the Book of Genesis. Other music featured in this unusual project included Cain and Abel by Milhaud; The Flood by Castelnuovo-Tedesco and The Covenant by Ernst Toch. Bartok, Hindemith and Prokofiev were also approached but did not contribute in the event. Schoenberg’s Prelude, a twentieth-century “Representation of Chaos”, begins with fugal entries representing the moment of creation itself and includes a wordless chorus whose unaccompanied vocalise brings the piece to a rather unexpected conclusion.
Dreimal Tausend Jahre and Psalm 130 are Schoenberg’s final works. Providing a further reminder of his Jewish faith, here the music represents a distillation of his life’s work. Passages of quasi-tonality alternate with angular 12-tone themes and sprechgesang. Excellent performances and recordings.
We move to New York briefly for the recording of Ode to Napoleon, in which David Wilson-Johnson is joined by the Fred Sherry Quartet and pianist Jeremy Denk. This setting of Byron, whose poem pulled no punches in its condemnation of the French emperor, also served as a pertinent condemnation of Hitler during the Second World War. Of his decision to compose the piece, Schoenberg wrote: “I knew it was the moral duty of intelligentsia to take a stand against tyranny.” First performed at Carnegie Hall by Mack Harrell and Rodzinski in an orchestral version which was later abandoned, Schoenberg attempted to ensure the dramatic values of the work were given full rein by notating precisely the rhythms and dynamic of the spoken text. The performance is first-rate.
Finally, to the main work on the disc, the 1936 Violin Concerto. On its original appearance Rolf Schulte’s coolly accurate performance of Schoenberg’s work was generally much admired, supported as it was by the analytical clarity of Craft’s conducting and the well-balanced sound. Accurate and involved in the opening movement, Schulte is affectionate in the central Andante grazioso, and he and Craft even manage to create genuine Brahmsian warmth as the movement progresses, followed by exuberance in the closing Alla Marcia. However Hilary Hahn’s recent performances and recording have added a new dimension to our understanding of this challenging piece. Hahn brings a warmth and romanticism to the concerto, and perhaps ultimately a sheer love of the music, which Shulte and Craft do not quite match. But it’s a close run thing, and some may prefer the cooler approach on this disc. Certainly in terms of sound there’s not much to choose between them.
A fascinating collection of music by one of the twentieth century greats, performed by one of his most eloquent advocates. Don’t miss it.