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Penguin Guide, January 2009

As an important issue in the ‘Robert Craft Collection’, Naxos here offers an exceptionally generous selection of Webern’s nature works. Eight brief pieces for various forces frame the three central works, the Six Pieces, Op. 6, the most powerful example of his early atonal period, exploiting a very large orchestra, the Symphony, Op. 21, for chamber orchestra, one of the finest works of his later, fully serial period, and the Concerto for nine soloist, the most popular of his chamber works. The Philharmonia plays warmly in Opus 6, with the 20th Century Classics Ensemble from New York giving virtuoso performances of the other two, also supplying players fro the other two, also supplying players for the smaller-scale piece. Jennifer Welch-Babidge’s bright, clear precisely focused, is ideal fro the craggy lines of the vocal pieces. Full texts and English translations are given. As a charming supplement, the Philharmonia also plays the set of six tiny German Dances by Schubert which, soon after they were discovered in 1929, Webern set sensitively fro small orchestra. Excellent sound in recording from both London and New York.




Jed Distler
ClassicsToday.com, December 2006

Robert Craft's advocacy on behalf of Anton Webern dates back to his "complete" pioneering 1954 cycle for Columbia Masterworks. Since that time, of course, musicians have absorbed these scores with increasing refinement and accuracy. The same can be said in regard to recording engineers and digital technology. These are all good reasons for Craft to embark on a brand new Webern cycle.

The 11 opus-numbered pieces included in this first volume represent an ideal sampling of chamber, solo, vocal, and orchestral work to attract listeners who want to get to know the composer's concise and extremely concentrated "pocket music" style. Best of all, the performances are all we could wish for.

Craft elicits impressive clarity and delicacy from the Philharmonia Orchestra in the two-movement Op. 21 Symphony and in the Six Pieces Op. 6 (even the super-soft tam-tam strokes in the latter's fourth piece make themselves felt) while imparting a welcome conversational sensibility to the Concerto for Nine Instruments' mosaic-like scoring. Both violinist Jesse Mills and cellist Fred Sherry prove more eloquent foils to their respective, expressionistically aggressive DG Boulez/Webern edition counterparts in Op. 7 and Op. 11.

Much as I admire DG soprano Christiane Oelze's frightening accuracy and tonal evenness in the Op. 16, 17, and 18 song groups, Jennifer Welch-Babidge manipulates her smaller voice to more playful effect, abetted by her like-minded instrumental collaborators. Christopher Oldfather's limpid, direct account of the Op. 27 Variations merits special mention, even in the face of Piotr Anderszewski's extraordinarily detailed reference version (Virgin Classics). Lastly, Craft's booklet notes match the intelligence and insight of his music making. May subsequent volumes of the Naxos Robert Craft Webern Edition share this one's sonic and interpretive distinctions.



John von Rhein
Chicago Tribune, May 2005

With this initial batch of releases in what Naxos calls its Robert Craft Collection, the label brings together new and old recordings of the conductor's "holy trinity" of 20th Century masters: Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Webern. . . .

Prize of the lot is Craft's 2001 recording (previously issued on Koch) of Schoenberg's lush, late-Romantic cantata, "Gurre-Lieder." . . . Not only is his nearly two-hour performance one of the most warmly expansive in the catalog, the solo and choral singing as well as the orchestral playing rival that of several starrier recordings. The excellent soloists include Melanie Diener as Tove, Jennifer Lane as the Wood Dove and Ernst Haefliger as the Speaker.

Back in the 1950s, Craft made a pioneering recording for Columbia of the complete published works of Webern. Now he has returned to that repertory in precision-tooled readings recorded by crack ensembles in London and New York, with soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge an expressive exponent of the songs. . . . I hope later discs delve into Webern's many unpublished pieces.

The Stravinsky performances, dating from 1996 and 1997, make a welcome return to circulation, not least because Craft's is the first recording of the complete original version of "Firebird," which contains many small differences from the more familiar 1910 scoring. The Philharmonia Orchestra plays very well for the conductor, who takes you inside the ballet's opalescent scoring even if his rhythmic control feels a mite stiff at times. The 1947 version of "Petrushka" comes off better.

Also worth checking out among the Craft releases is a newly recorded Schoenberg disc containing the weird and wonderful Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, Suite for Piano, Wood Dove's Song (from "Gurre-Lieder") and "Book of the Hanging Gardens"; also a coupling of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" and "Les Noces," taken from a pair of Koch discs taped in 2001. With fine sound and at Naxos' budget price, each of these CDs gives excellent value. Anyone with an interest in some of the last century's greatest music will want to snap them up.





Bruce Hodges
MusicWeb International, April 2005

"For those with short attention spans, your composer is here. Indeed, the longest uninterrupted track on this recording is the first movement of the Symphony, at a monumental seven minutes and thirty-one seconds. Years ago I had the pleasure of hearing every scrap of Webern’s work in a single week, during the Focus! Festival at the Juilliard School in New York, and Webern is one of the few composers with the kind of concentrated output that would make such a survey even possible. I am happy to report that this excellent recording contains an extremely generous program (almost 80 minutes) of some of Webern’s most inspired output, in outstanding performances.

I just heard the short Symphony a few weeks ago with James Levine and the Met Orchestra, and this one is presented faster, more flowing – probably more to most listeners’ taste – and the Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble dispatches it with lustrous assurance. With quiet relentlessness, Robert Craft makes the first movement glisten, with notes dropping like pebbles into a pond. The second movement’s "Variations" are short – eight of them in under three minutes – and since Craft takes great pains to be faithful to Webern’s tempi markings, he writes that "…this may be the first to realize the music as it was intended to be heard."

Jennifer Welch-Babidge is perfectly suited to the Five Canons, and very well recorded. The last "Crucem tuam adoramus" ("We worship Thy Cross") is one of the shortest tracks on the CD, and offers 29 seconds of sheer delight, ending with "Venit gaudium in universo mundo" ("Joy has come to the whole world") – joy indeed, in a performance as luminous as this one. Charles Neidich and Michael Lowenstern are the agile clarinetists who complete the picture. The Three Traditional Rhymes are also charming, with some stratospheric leaps, albeit delicate ones, and the Three Songs that follow only add to Welch-Babidge’s expert singing with some beautiful work by Mr. Neidich on piccolo clarinet and Scott Kuney on guitar.

The Trio is done with romantic sweetness, and the Academy of Arts and Letters acoustic adds clarity and warmth to what could seem chilly in other hands. Notable is the second movement ("Sehr getragen und ausdrucksvoll") whose restless tide is particularly well-realized by the players Ani Kavafian on violin, Richard O’Neill on viola and cellist Fred Sherry. Unusual forces define the Quartet, scored for violin, clarinet, piano and tenor saxophone, with Daniel Goble offering expert work on the latter. I especially liked the work in the second movement – witty, jazzy, with the four players almost squawking at each other. The three Variations for piano total just six minutes, and show the impressive Christopher Oldfather at his pointillistic best. And the brief Four Pieces for Violin and Piano and Three Pieces for Cello and Piano offer (to quote from Mr. Craft’s notes) "…conciseness and concentration of expression [that] are unprecedented." Jesse Mills (violin) and Mr. Sherry respectively, each accompanied by Mr. Oldfather, make the best possible case for these miniatures.

With the famous Six Pieces for Large Orchestra, one immediately senses the change in venue to the massive Watford space, site of many superb recordings including this one. The Philharmonia are in fine form, and allow me to praise them for their playing in the second movement right off the bat. Attention is always focused on the dramatic fourth-movement funeral march, but Craft makes the others equally compelling. That march opens with one of the most chilling percussion sequences ever conceived, with the rest of the ensemble seemingly struggling to make their voices heard, until at about the three-minute mark, the snare drum begins its fateful tread to the movement’s shockingly abrupt conclusion. This is an amazing reading, a cauldron of pent-up, overflowing grief. Again, I’m most familiar with Levine’s work in these pieces, as well as the ultra-refined version from Herbert von Karajan years ago, but Craft encourages greater urgency, an approach that might be likelier to persuade those disinclined toward the composer.

In the same vein, the classic Concerto is nicely done, with a spunky first movement, a lazily flowing second, and precise playing in the insistent march of the last. The German Dances will probably come as a mild shock, following the rest of the program. Schubert composed them in 1824, but the manuscript was not rediscovered until 1930, when Webern was inspired to arrange it for chamber orchestra. The result is six lovely works that never betray their early nineteenth-century origin, but sparkle anew, as if glimpsed through some high-definition lens by Webern’s expert polishing."



David_Schiff
The New York Times, March 2005

SINCE the late 1940's, Robert Craft has been, among other things, a freelance boutique conductor. Without an orchestra of his own and concentrating on the works of a handful of composers, he has nevertheless influenced musical taste more than most traditional maestros have.

Although the brunt of that influence came in the 1950's, when his recordings of Webern, Schoenberg and Varèse reoriented a generation of American composers away from Paris to Vienna, the recordings he has been making in recent years may turn out to have a more lasting value. On his new Naxos CD's, works that once sounded like shocking provocations take on the glowing patina of classics.

Mr. Craft, 82, who has kept up a steady flow of recordings over the last two decades, has moved from label to label. His new home, Naxos, adds the lure of bargain prices to recordings that would be important no matter the cost.

Naxos has recently released four CD's with Mr. Craft conducting. Two of them, Stravinsky's "Noces" and "Oedipus Rex," as well as Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder," had appeared briefly on the Koch International label. The other two are new, and they provide rich overviews of the evolving styles of Webern and Schoenberg.

Many of the performances are by the Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble, a group of veteran New York new-music players who could just as well call themselves the Robert Craft All-Stars. Even when they perform chamber or solo works, their interpretations reflect Mr. Craft's half century of experience with this repertory.

The Webern CD begins with a show-stopper. The first movement of Webern's Symphony (Op. 21) has never sounded so radiantly and seductively normal. This music was a breakthrough for Webern, a leap beyond a tortured, imploded Expressionism into an Apollonian mode. Whereas much of his earlier music is written in fidgety, flittering rhythms, the first movement of the Symphony glides in on a steady stream of quarter notes.

Proud of his newly achieved expansiveness, Webern claimed, overoptimistically, that the movement was 15 minutes long. Even if you observe his tempo indications and the repeat sign on each half of the movement (a self-conscious bow to 18th-century convention), the music falls short of his claim of heavenly length.

But Mr. Craft's interpretation glories in the spacious, resonating calm. He nails the music's elusive rhythmic groove, and the players find the equally elusive tonal groove, placing the sparse notes in a secure harmonic relationship that has previously been more apparent to the analytic eye than to the ear. Atonal music sounds completely different, perhaps not even atonal, when played in tune.

Just when you think that Webern has become easy listening, the symphony's second movement blazes by as if on fast forward. Many of Webern's works can be placed in two temporal categories: stop-time visions of eternity and breathless, fleeting firecrackers. Each variation in this movement explodes, then rewinds in a matter of seconds, as if the listener were nervously turning a radio dial. (One variation even sounds, ever so briefly, like static.) Mr. Craft's fast tempos bring out the frantic, electric quality of the music, which can sound pedantic at a slower pace.

His contrast of expanded and compressed time in the symphony works equally well in the two movements of Webern's Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Saxophone and Piano (Op. 22), also a slow-fast pair. The second movement is exceptional in Webern's output both for its relatively epic length, 192 bars, and its formal freedom.

In contrast to the many Webern works advertising an obsession with order by using scholastic techniques like canon and retrograde, this movement sounds improvised. In the past it has always seemed an unsuccessful walk on the wild side, a lumpy, overextended reflection of 1930's Euro-jazz. But here, played at a terrifying clip, and over before you know what hit you, it sounds at once crazy and celebratory.

Equally revelatory is the performance of Webern's most intimidating instrumental work, the String Trio (Op. 20), by the violinist Ani Kavafian, the violist Richard O'Neill and the cellist Fred Sherry. One of the earliest performances of the piece, in 1928, caused a riot - not surprisingly, given the demands it makes on players and listeners.

The trio was Webern's first instrumental work to use Schoenberg's newly devised 12-tone method. But it was also his first instrumental work since the infamously brief Three Short Pieces for Cello and Piano, 15 years before, and his first exercise in traditional sonata form since he was a student. He had a lot at stake, and composition of the 10-minute, two-movement work took him more than a year.

Like Schoenberg, Webern believed that the 12-tone method made possible a return to abstract instrumental music after a period when musical form had been shaped by poetic texts. Schoenberg's contemporary works, like his Woodwind Quintet and Third String Quartet, emulated the formal schemes and scale of the Classical period, and they sound at times like wrong-note Schubert. But Webern's first attempt at restoration retained the condensed gestures and gnarled textures of his Expressionist period, so its Classical forms are hard to perceive.

Further complicating matters was Webern's aversion to literal repetition, even when using Classical forms that might have called for it. Stravinsky once wrote that the Rondo of Webern's Trio is "wonderfully interesting, but no one hears it as a rondo."

Wrong. When the players figure out how to phrase the music and let it breathe, as they do so admirably here, you can actually hear the returning episodes that define the form.

Some Webern has long since crossed over into popular culture. Mr. Craft's dramatic reading of the often-played Six Pieces for Orchestra (Op. 6) with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London illustrates what an inspiration Webern has been to film composers whenever an eerie moment needs to be scored.

The performances on this album suggest that other pieces, even those long considered unapproachable, may be ready for the mainstream. With all these works heard in proximity, the gradual compression of time from the expansive orchestral pieces to the aphoristic cello miniatures, makes poetic sense. Once thought of as an extreme point of eccentricity, the tiny pieces for cello and piano, played here by Fred Sherry and Christopher Oldfather, have the expressive weight of a real sonata, though they last a mere two and a half minutes.

Even more surprisingly accessible are the songs from Opus 16, Opus 17 and Opus 18, mostly settings of Latin texts from the Roman Catholic breviary. The huge leaps in the vocal lines have made them more familiar as ear-training exercises than as melodies. But the soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge imparts to them a musicality and vocal beauty as impressive as her tonal accuracy. Her gentle reading of "Dormi Jesu" might earn it the nickname "Webern's Lullaby."

Superb singing also dominates the new Schoenberg CD, which features the mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane in performances of "The Book of the Hanging Gardens," with Mr. Oldfather as pianist, and of Schoenberg's luminous chamber orchestra arrangement of the "Song of the Wood Dove" from "Gurrelieder."

"The Book of the Hanging Gardens," a setting of stiflingly humid (rather than torrid) love poems by Stefan George, marked Schoenberg's leap from traditional tonality. Despite their historical importance, and even though they were not intended as Schoenberg's lullaby, these songs are soporific in spite of themselves.

For once, Ms. Lane and Mr. Oldfather enliven the cycle, articulating the suppressed eroticism and anxiety of an affair that seems to go nowhere. Although you can also hear Ms. Lane's dramatic portrayal of the Wood Dove in Mr. Craft's complete recording of "Gurrelieder," you may very well prefer to hear the work's essence in this finely shaped aria.

Schoenberg is sometimes hardest to take when you think he is easiest. His orchestrations of Bach and Brahms seem intended to violate notions of good taste you didn't even suspect you had.

More discomforting still is his Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra, from 1933. This is not, at first blush, an original composition. Based on a Handel concerto grosso (Op. 6, No. 7), which Schoenberg "freely transcribed and developed," it was a sequel to the arrangement of a cello concerto by Matthias Georg Monn that Schoenberg had made the previous year for Pablo Casals.

If that work challenged the technique of a Casals, the string quartet concerto seems to call for four Paganini impersonators. Jennifer Frautschi, Jesse Mills, Mr. O'Neill and Mr. Sherry, teamed here as the Fred Sherry Quartet, sound up to the job - and a wild and crazy job it is. As in the cello concerto, Schoenberg scatters his virtuosic challenges as if by random. All of a sudden, and for no apparent reason, the soloists burst into a volley of triple stops or harmonics.

In the first two movements Schoenberg is relatively restrained. If you follow Handel's score you will not be too surprised except for one outburst of dissonance, which seems to have jumped ship from "Moses and Aron."

But in the last two movements, Schoenberg develops Handel with a vengeance. He turns the sweet tune of the Allegro grazioso into a Hungarian march à la Glazunov, interspersed with anxious episodes that forecast Alfred Schnittke. The closing hornpipe continues the radical makeover.

High anxiety was not at all out of order in 1933. You just don't expect to hear it grafted onto such a jolly original.



David Schiff- “Still Turning Provocations Into Classics”
The New York Times, March 2005

SINCE the late 1940's, Robert Craft has been, among other things, a freelance boutique conductor. Without an orchestra of his own and concentrating on the works of a handful of composers, he has nevertheless influenced musical taste more than most traditional maestros have.

Although the brunt of that influence came in the 1950's, when his recordings of Webern, Schoenberg and Varèse reoriented a generation of American composers away from Paris to Vienna, the recordings he has been making in recent years may turn out to have a more lasting value. On his new Naxos CD's, works that once sounded like shocking provocations take on the glowing patina of classics.

Mr. Craft, 82, who has kept up a steady flow of recordings over the last two decades, has moved from label to label. His new home, Naxos, adds the lure of bargain prices to recordings that would be important no matter the cost.

Naxos has recently released four CD's with Mr. Craft conducting. Two of them, Stravinsky's "Noces" and "Oedipus Rex," as well as Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder," had appeared briefly on the Koch International label. The other two are new, and they provide rich overviews of the evolving styles of Webern and Schoenberg.

Many of the performances are by the Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble, a group of veteran New York new-music players who could just as well call themselves the Robert Craft All-Stars. Even when they perform chamber or solo works, their interpretations reflect Mr. Craft's half century of experience with this repertory.

The Webern CD begins with a show-stopper. The first movement of Webern's Symphony (Op. 21) has never sounded so radiantly and seductively normal. This music was a breakthrough for Webern, a leap beyond a tortured, imploded Expressionism into an Apollonian mode. Whereas much of his earlier music is written in fidgety, flittering rhythms, the first movement of the Symphony glides in on a steady stream of quarter notes.

Proud of his newly achieved expansiveness, Webern claimed, overoptimistically, that the movement was 15 minutes long. Even if you observe his tempo indications and the repeat sign on each half of the movement (a self-conscious bow to 18th-century convention), the music falls short of his claim of heavenly length.

Just when you think that Webern has become easy listening, the symphony's second movement blazes by as if on fast forward. Many of Webern's works can be placed in two temporal categories: stop-time visions of eternity and breathless, fleeting firecrackers. Each variation in this movement explodes, then rewinds in a matter of seconds, as if the listener were nervously turning a radio dial. (One variation even sounds, ever so briefly, like static.) Mr. Craft's fast tempos bring out the frantic, electric quality of the music, which can sound pedantic at a slower pace.

His contrast of expanded and compressed time in the symphony works equally well in the two movements of Webern's Quartet for Violin, Clarinet, Saxophone and Piano (Op. 22), also a slow-fast pair. The second movement is exceptional in Webern's output both for its relatively epic length, 192 bars, and its formal freedom.

In contrast to the many Webern works advertising an obsession with order by using scholastic techniques like canon and retrograde, this movement sounds improvised. In the past it has always seemed an unsuccessful walk on the wild side, a lumpy, overextended reflection of 1930's Euro-jazz. But here, played at a terrifying clip, and over before you know what hit you, it sounds at once crazy and celebratory.

Equally revelatory is the performance of Webern's most intimidating instrumental work, the String Trio (Op. 20), by the violinist Ani Kavafian, the violist Richard O'Neill and the cellist Fred Sherry. One of the earliest performances of the piece, in 1928, caused a riot - not surprisingly, given the demands it makes on players and listeners.

The trio was Webern's first instrumental work to use Schoenberg's newly devised 12-tone method. But it was also his first instrumental work since the infamously brief Three Short Pieces for Cello and Piano, 15 years before, and his first exercise in traditional sonata form since he was a student. He had a lot at stake, and composition of the 10-minute, two-movement work took him more than a year.

Like Schoenberg, Webern believed that the 12-tone method made possible a return to abstract instrumental music after a period when musical form had been shaped by poetic texts. Schoenberg's contemporary works, like his Woodwind Quintet and Third String Quartet, emulated the formal schemes and scale of the Classical period, and they sound at times like wrong-note Schubert. But Webern's first attempt at restoration retained the condensed gestures and gnarled textures of his Expressionist period, so its Classical forms are hard to perceive.

Further complicating matters was Webern's aversion to literal repetition, even when using Classical forms that might have called for it. Stravinsky once wrote that the Rondo of Webern's Trio is "wonderfully interesting, but no one hears it as a rondo."

Wrong. When the players figure out how to phrase the music and let it breathe, as they do so admirably here, you can actually hear the returning episodes that define the form.

Some Webern has long since crossed over into popular culture. Mr. Craft's dramatic reading of the often-played Six Pieces for Orchestra (Op. 6) with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London illustrates what an inspiration Webern has been to film composers whenever an eerie moment needs to be scored.

The performances on this album suggest that other pieces, even those long considered unapproachable, may be ready for the mainstream. With all these works heard in proximity, the gradual compression of time from the expansive orchestral pieces to the aphoristic cello miniatures, makes poetic sense. Once thought of as an extreme point of eccentricity, the tiny pieces for cello and piano, played here by Fred Sherry and Christopher Oldfather, have the expressive weight of a real sonata, though they last a mere two and a half minutes.

Even more surprisingly accessible are the songs from Opus 16, Opus 17 and Opus 18, mostly settings of Latin texts from the Roman Catholic breviary. The huge leaps in the vocal lines have made them more familiar as ear-training exercises than as melodies. But the soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge imparts to them a musicality and vocal beauty as impressive as her tonal accuracy. Her gentle reading of "Dormi Jesu" might earn it the nickname "Webern's Lullaby."



John Simon
New York Magazine, March 2005

This is one way two prominent members of Paris' "Les Six" composers earned their daily bread - one of them (Arthur Honegger), one of the great titans of 20th century music, no matter how arduous his reputation's struggles, and one of them (Georges Auric) almost universally dismissed as an also-ran in "Les Six" behind Honegger, Milhaud and Poulenc. Honegger's complete 1934 score to Raymond Bernard's "Les Miserables" was hugely admired by Koechlin and Rosza, among others. Auric's score for Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" used a wordless chorus, juggled tonalities and generally went its own symbolist way. Rare, to the point of uniqueness, in complete form, they're a part of a terrific wave of Naxos film soundtracks, including Tiomkin's "Red River," Adolph Deutsch's "The Maltese Falcon" and the first digital recording of a reconstruction of Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman's score for "The Egyptian." Being at least a little impressed seems mandatory.



Colin Clarke
MusicWeb International, March 2005

"Robert Craft’s association with the works of Webern goes back a long way. Here are his most recent thoughts on the Master’s opus along with a large selection of chamber and vocal works for small forces. This is announced as Volume 1 of the complete Webern – I shall be watching the remainder with keen interest.

The Symphony kicks things off. At just over ten minutes it is, for this composer, of near-Wagnerian length. The hushed first movement is almost reverential here, shifting and mysterious. The good recording ensures all is audible, and helps convey the supreme confidence of the second movement finale.

The interspersing of the larger-scored pieces with smaller, more intimate works is a strong point in the disc’s favour – a straight-through listen is a pleasure when programmed like this. So the juxtaposing of the Symphony with the Five Canons for soprano and two clarinets means a complementary move to more intimate climes.

Jennifer Welch-Babidge is the soprano for this disc, described in her bio as a ‘singer-actress’. She is fairly expressive in the Five Canons, Op. 16, but the latent expression in Webern’s disjunct larger intervals can certainly be more beautifully rendered than here, Welch-Babidge’s voice being just that little bit too timbrally thin. She is better in the Volktexte, Op. 17, for soprano, violin, clarinet and bass clarinet, especially the hyper-delicate final movement.

The Songs, Op. 18 are scored characterfully for soprano, piccolo clarinet and guitar; Pierre Boulez must have loved these! The beauty of these songs - and their performance here - is one of the highlights of this disc. To move to the famous Op. 20 String Trio is a smooth journey. Craft describes Op. 20 as ‘one of his [Webern’s] greatest creations’, without actually saying why. There is indeed a purity here; the sweet tone of Ani Kavafian’s violin certainly helps. There is also a real feeling of chamber-music. The more abrasive second movement works in good contrast.

Allegedly, the Op. 22 Quartet (tenor saxophone, violin, clarinet and piano) is ‘widely recognised as the "coolest" music Webern ever wrote’ (Craft), although no explanation of this statement is given. Presumably it refers to the inclusion of a sax? Actually the sound of the sax used in these surroundings takes on a whole new meaning. Although the second movement dances, surely it is closer to the finale of the Op. 24 Concerto than to cool jazz?

Christopher Oldfather’s account of the Variations, while not rivalling the sovereign Pollini (DG), is interesting for the way in which the intimacy of the first movement invites the listener in. The second movement dances, but possibly the highlight of Oldfather’s interpretation is the way the finale dies away into silence.

The longest single work on this disc is the Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6. Having an orchestra of the Philharmonia’s calibre at one’s disposal guarantees a certain confidence in execution. Craft finds a good deal of warmth in this score, that Boulez can at times eschew. The Funeral March (the fourth movement) is absolutely hypnotic, certainly having me hanging on every note. The climax is highly impressive, the recording coping well with the onslaught. I like Craft’s description of the muted tuba notes of the final movement ‘floating up like bubbles from the bottom of a tank’.

Craft cites a rather surface description of the Op. 7 in his notes, but does not accredit his quote. The performance is masterly however. Jesse Mills and Oldfather clearly worked hard on ever micro-nuance. Fully fitting that the Op. 11 cello pieces should follow, the logical continuation of the supremely terse mode of expression that Op. 7 offers. Fred Sherry finds almost Romantic expression in the brief second piece (0’24) while maintaining the intensity throughout. Oldfather is once again a responsive accompanist.

The (in)famous Concerto is given a dedicated performance. Very confidently despatched, this is clearly seen as ‘pure’ Webern. Dovetailing and conversing between instruments is deftly done, the rarefied atmosphere of the slow movement well sustained. All this makes the barely-disguised rudeness of the finale all the more shocking. Try the sudden coming together at 0’15, which is played up for all it is worth. Excellent.

The decision to follow the Concerto with Webern’s arrangements of Schubert is one I remain unsure of. These are the most famous of Webern’s arrangements. I have yet to hear his arrangements of three Schubert Piano Sonatas for small orchestra that Craft alludes to in his notes, apparently made a decade prior to these dances. Suffice to say that the Dances are affectionately moulded in Craft’s hands.

The standard of performance on this disc is very high, the care always evident.. Do investigate."






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