, November 2009
“Schonberg once again has a wonderful idea…to establish a society whose mission is to present weekly performances of music from ‘Mahler to the present’ to its members,” Alban Berg wrote to his wife Helene on July 1, 1918. By November of 1919, The “Society for Private Musical Performances,” a group of Schonberg’s Viennese students and friends, (including Webern and Berg), had performed the works of 27 contemporary composers including Debussy, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky. On May 27, 1921, four of the five waltzes on this CD, arranged by Schonberg, Webern, and Berg, were performed by the composers. The scores were auctioned off to raise money for the Society. This CD came without program notes, and I am indebted to Therese Muxeneder of the Arnold Schonberg Center for the historical background of this disc.
For those of you who fear or abhor the composers of the Second Viennese School, this charming disc is an easy way to take the plunge into the tepid waters of the fearsome three. These famous waltzes by Johann Strauss, Jr. are arrangements for string quartet, piano, harmonium and pump organ. Berg commented on the practice of reducing larger scores for smaller ensembles, “In this manner it is possible to hear and judge modern orchestral scores stripped of all sound effects that an orchestra produces and all of its sensory aids. Thereby invalidating the common criticism that this music owes its effects solely to its more or less rich and striking instrumentation and does not possess all of the features which were formerly characteristic of good music: melodies, richness of harmony, polyphony, perfect form, architecture, etc.”
The modern spare instrumentation of these waltzes emphasize their musical strengths: melody, harmony and color. From the beginning of Berg’s arrangement of Strauss’ Wine, Woman and Song, the pump organ and strings create a beautiful melancholic mood that leads to a sharply accented (piano) main waltz. A sugary confection mit schlag is replaced by the tart and real flavor of lemon. There were many times during this disc I imagined myself in a Viennese café sipping a cappuccino. Schonberg adds a slightly dour flavor to the aristocratic Roses From the South, yet the spare forces reveal the light and sweetness underneath. Schonberg adds the clarinet and flute to the string quartet and piano in his Kaiser Waltz. The resulting clarity and brightness cuts through the traditional om-pa-pa, adding a welcome variety.
Tempo variation and judicious use of portamento by the Linos—Ensemble add to the authenticity of these delightful confections. Their performance is accurate without mitigating the old world atmosphere that these great composers surely meant to capture in their twentieth century garb. And most importantly, their interpretations swing! The sound is close with enough reverberant twang to envelope the ears. So, take your iPods or portable CD players to the local coffee house and imagine yourself in the Vienna of the early twentieth century!