“Still Turning Provocations Into Classics” by David Schiff
The New York Times, Sunday, March 13th, 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.