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Fanfare, May 2005

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Steve Arloff
MusicWeb International, March 2005

"To many people the name of Picasso epitomises ‘difficult’ abstract art. However, if they see any of his paintings done during his "pink" or "blue" periods they realise that, in fact, he could paint in a way that anyone can understand. In much the same way I have discovered that there is no reason to be musically frightened of Schoenberg. Times were that if I heard his name announced on the radio as the composer of the next piece I’d have switched off pretty damned quickly! Then one day I heard "Verklärte Nacht" and it was a revelation in the true sense of the word. I have to say, however, that apart from that work, I knew of no others of his that were analogous to the paintings of Picasso’s "pink" and "blue" periods – that is until this CD arrived. On this disc there are four works, all of them wonderful creations and all of them extremely listenable. At last I have been freed from my own constraints as far as Schoenberg is concerned, constraints put in place through my own ignorance.

The first work is very interesting in that it is Schoenberg’s elaboration of Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op.6, No.7. As the liner notes explain, this work should be considered a Schoenberg composition since, at 22 minutes, it is 8 minutes longer than the original and is far from being a simple orchestration. If you can I urge you to listen to the Handel original before you listen to this. I can assure you it is not like seeing a film after reading the book on which it is based; on the contrary it will help you to better appreciate the work. Having said that the liner notes explain that Schoenberg was no great admirer of Handel who, amongst other things, according to him, wasted his main theme, which "is always best when it first appears and grows steadily more insignificant and trivial in the course of the piece". Well Schoenberg clearly thinks highly of this work’s main theme as he nurses it throughout the entire concerto.

I imagine that writing a work for string quartet and orchestra must be profoundly difficult, requiring, as it does, the integration of an otherwise self-contained unit with the orchestra and the distribution of the "weight" to each group and to the individuals within them. In any event the notes point out that it is "one of the most demanding for the solo instruments of a quartet since Beethoven’s Great Fugue". It was composed in the summer of 1933 in Arcachon (Gironde), France, following his enforced departure from Germany in May that year.

There is no doubt that it should be considered a Schoenberg composition since it departs so radically from Handel in both harmony as well as instrumental style. There’s some fiendishly inventive music that, nevertheless never loses sight of the concerto grosso’s Handelian theme. Robert Craft’s liner notes say "this too-little-known, difficult to play masterpiece…has never received such a fine performance". It is certainly played with gusto and makes for breathtaking listening.

The suite for Piano, Op. 25, brings us back very much to what the name of Schoenberg conjures up musically for most people. It was composed in 1921-1923, around the time he discovered the 12-tone row. He uses it in this work but there is nothing here to frighten anyone off – far from it. It is easy to listen to as well as being fascinating, highly energetic and brilliant as well as extremely demanding for the pianist. Christopher Oldfather gives the work a great performance.

The third work on this admirable CD is the loveliest of the Gurre-Lieder "Lied der Waldtraube" in a wonderfully skilful transcription of the orchestral version to a chamber ensemble of fifteen instruments plus piano and harmonium. It is gorgeous, sumptuous music and superbly beautifully sung by Jennifer Lane.

Finally there are the fifteen poems from Stefan George’s "Das buch der Hangenden Garten", again sung by Jennifer Lane. These are also rich offerings, beautifully sung, and expertly accompanied by Christopher Oldfather. Schoenberg was very pleased with the result when he completed this work shortly before its first performance on 14 January 1910. He said that "with the George songs I have for the first time succeeded in approaching an ideal of expression and form which has been in my mind for years".

The disc is rounded off by a short interview with Schoenberg, recorded at his home in July 1949, two years before his death. He discusses music and painting and his deep humanity comes shining through.

When you consider that this disc gives almost eighty minutes of music, including a rarely performed work in what Robert Craft describes as an unmatched performance, plus three other pieces and an interview, all for a super-budget price then it is irresistible. I hope there are many others who will, like me, change their opinions of this icon of twentieth century music. For my part I am now ready to take on his other works and am sure I will not find them anywhere near as daunting as I used to do. Thanks once again Naxos!"

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

Superb singing 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.

Frank Behrens
Brattleboro Reformer, March 2005

Some time ago, there was available on the Marco Polo label a series of CDs devoted to the film music of many composers. These are now available on the budget priced Naxos label and I have been enjoying nine of them.

Some are devoted to a single film, such as Franz Waxman's score to the 1945 "Objective Burma"and Dimitri Tiomkin's score to the 1948 "Red River," the latter being especially good. More memorable are the scenes from the 1933 "King Kong" for which Max Steiner wrote an excellent score, especially that sacrificial dance with a very unwilling "bride" of the beast as guest of honor. (The trick here was to begin with drums and slowly introduce a symphonic orchestra without the audience realizing the absurdity of it all!)

The somewhat overblown sand and sandals epic, "The Egyptian," has music by Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman and bears comparison with the epic film scores of Miklos Rozsa, available on a DRG release. The best of the lot, possibly the best film music since Prokovief's "Alexander Nevsky" score, is George Auric's "Beauty and the Beast," the Cocteau masterpiece of 1946. This is an example of that rare film music that can be enjoyed without any reference to the film itself.

A single composer's contribution to several films can be found on "'The Maltese Falcon' and other film scores by Adolph Deutch," which also includes "George Washington Slept Here",“The Mask of Dimitrios","High Sierra", and "Northern Pursuit." Some of this music has little intrinsic value, especially when compared to the "Monster Music" of Frank Skinner and Hans J. Salter, which so perfectly brings back those childhood shudders we got while watching "Son of Frankenstein","The Invisible Man Returns", and "The Wolf Man" back in the 1940s.

I found "Bram Stoker's Dracula and other film music" by Wojciech Kilar the least interesting. One track went on incessantly with a chorus intoning the same lines until I had to reach for the skip button. That was a problem I did not have with "Captain Blood and other Swashbucklers," containing Erich Korngold's music for that adventure film along with Miklos Rozsa's "The King's Thief," Victor Young's "Scaramouche," and Max Steiner's "The Three Musketeers." You can check the Naxos of America website for other titles in this series.

Now please understand that these are all new recordings, most of them restorations from bits and pieces of full scores that did not survive after many of these films were completed. The players are Moscow Symphony Orchestra in all but the Dracula disc (Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) and the Swashbucklers (Brandenburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Potsdam.

With few exceptions, not only do these discs provide a good deal of delightful listening, but they also provide a wealth of nostalgia for film buffs and some fabulous examples for would-be composers of film music. And try a party game in which your guests have to guess the film and even the composer!

But if you want just one, go for the Auric score, with "Red River"as a close second.

Richard Scheinin, March 2005

The liner notes to this terrific disc say the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra is one of the composer's ``most high-spirited, tender and tuneful works,'' and that may be. But this is Schoenberg-land, after all, and this brief, mostly tonal concerto still can put a knot in your stomach.

There's a queasy quality to the orchestration: Whatever our protagonist, the Fred Sherry String Quartet, may be doing is shadowed by low horns or stalked by pitched percussion amid shifting layers of instrumental colors.

The piece, performed here with the Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble, is a free elaboration upon Handel's Concerto Grosso Opus 6, No. 7. Stately melodies give way to demented outbursts or are undermined by ridiculously difficult scurrying lines passed between the string quartet members.

The performance, conducted by Robert Craft, is not only excellent -- it's significant. It's an opening salvo in Naxos' plan to re-record or reissue the entire oeuvres of Schoenberg, Webern and Stravinsky, with Craft conducting or otherwise supervising what will be known as the ``Robert Craft Collection.'' Craft's revisiting of the Concerto for String Quartet makes you think that, whatever century Schoenberg had lived in, he would have written deeply unsettling music.

After the concerto, Christopher Oldfather bravely sojourns through the Suite for Piano, Opus 25, a series of percussive, contrapuntal miniatures with names suggestive of Bach and the Baroque ("Praludium,'' "Gavotte,'' etc.). Schoenberg may have been thinking of the past, but in this piece's dispassionate temperament and clearness of texture you can hear ahead to the Boulez piano sonatas; and its one-hand-against-the-other tempos and jagged clusters of notes make me think of Conlon Nancarrow's studies for player piano.

The second half of the disc is a recital by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lane. In the ``Lied der Waldtaube,'' 15 minutes of unspooling melody and Wagnerian harmonies, she is accompanied by the Twentieth Century ensemble; under Craft, the 17 instruments called for by Schoenberg play beautifully fat phrases and thunder like an organ.

Details of scoring have a subliminal effect -- you only semi-consciously register an über-Romantic violin solo here or the creepy sound of strings being hit by the wooden sides of bows there. It's a beautiful piece that emotes as heavily as Mahler.

Finally, Lane and Oldfather perform the song cycle ``The Book of the Hanging Gardens''; so much atonality ends up creating an effect of the songs blurring together, but there's plenty of order (if not many tunes) discernible even on a first listening. For all the demanding density and complexity of his music, Schoenberg always gave his listeners a foothold. The performances on this disc bring him across directly and vividly.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group