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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Robert Craft continues his excellent and dedicated series of key 20th-century works with this expertly played and sung Schoenberg collection. The complex second movement of the Second Chamber Symphony is vital, richly textured and carefully balanced. The weird Die glückliche Hand is dramatic and hauntingly atmospheric. It is well sung by Mark Beesley, while the chorus are extraordinarily vivid, and the Philharmonia Orchestra give a virtuoso account of the orchestral score, held in a firm grip by Craft. The Wind Quintet, dating from 1923/4, requires even more virtuosity, and it is only recently that it has been found possible to play the work up to tempo (the first performance by members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 1924 took an hour against the present 38 minutes). The New York Woodwind Quintet take it in their stride. Although at fist hearing it does not sound it, the work is written traditionally, the first movement in sonata form with a repeated exposition, followed by a witty Scherzo, melancholy Adagio, and Rondo finale. The recording throughout is very clear and well balanced, and there are (very necessary) excellent notes by Robert Craft himself.

American Record Guide, September 2008

This is Volume 8 in Robert Craft's series on Naxos of the music or Arnold Schoenberg, which is, to date, a rather effective one, considering the composer's many shifts of style and philosophies over his lifetime. More to the point, the series is what it is because of Robert Craft. It's clear that this man knows as much about Schoenberg as he does about Stravinsky. …I do recommend this release particularly for the Chamber Symphony 2.

James H. North
Fanfare, September 2008

There have been successful recordings [of the Second Chamber Symphony] before—I particularly liked a 1970 live performance led by Bruno Madema—but Craft outshines them all, turning what is often an unconvincing work into a thoroughly winning piece. One of his secrets is not to stretch out the slow sections…The one-man opera (plus chamber chorus) Die glückliche Hand remains as much of an enigma as ever. …Chorus (six men, six women) and orchestra perform well; the baritone has so little to sing—about a dozen lines of text—that one cannot evaluate his contributions. …The virtuosic, dodecaphonic Wind Quintet has been a bugaboo of instrumentalists and listeners since its first performance in 1924. …The playing is superb, so I must devote a few extra hearings to accustom myself to the tempos. …As always, Craft's program notes are revealing, egotistical, and provocative: the Chamber Symphony's Con fuoco "requires a much higher degree of instrumental virtuosity than any piece by Stravinsky." Has Le sacre become so easy to play? Also: "the Schoenberg is incomparably more abundant in substance, emotional power, and compositional skill" than the middle movement of Stravinsky's Ode. The Russian composer, who had something of an ego himself, will be awaiting Craft at the gates of whatever place they spend their eternities; their conversation may bring a rare smile to Schoenberg's dour visage. Craft often claims that his performances are superior to any previous ones; this time he is right. Highly recommended!

Philip Clark
Gramophone, September 2008

Schoenberg extremes: radiance to dark depths that even fox the fervant

Schoenberg, apparently, remains a polarising figure and this eighth instalment of Robert Craft's Naxos cycle touches the polar opposites of his output. The radiant Chamber Symphony No 2 might be a beloved classic if Schoenberg hadn't so comprehensively queered his pitch elsewhere, while the Wind Quintet represents darkest deepest "elsewhere", a work to challenge even the most devoted Schoenbergian.

But the joy of Schoenberg's music is in grappling to reach an understanding, transforming passive listening into a creative act. This magisterial recording of the Quintet from the New York Woodwind Quintet marks a new plateau in our understanding of the work. As Craft's notes testify, performances during Schoenberg's life were normally conducted and lasted around an hour. This lime, quicksilver version clocks in at 38 minutes and, with the right tempi restored, Schoenberg's contrapuntal labyrinth sparks into life. Melodic motifs evolve and morph into new terrain with profound inevitability, while his harmonic daring and recherché timbres now feel holistically connected.

The Chamber Symphony No 2 is another work where intellectual energy equates to a virtuoso instrumental showdown. The Philharmonia are fully engaged and Craft's fastidious approach makes every little detail count: but, as the cumulative impact of me second movement demonstrates, his ear is also focused on me larger picture. The 20-minute melodrama Die glückliche Hand sits in the stylistic overlap between Quintet and Symphony. Mark Beesley's small but anchoring role is powerfully executed, while Craft's artful unpicking of the prickly orchestral and choral writing places the listener at the core of Schoenberg's dream-world.

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, June 2008

More terrific Schoenberg by a master conductor who know the works better than anyone. This is the latest from the ongoing Robert Craft-conducted series that will surely end up being one of the jewels in the Naxos crown. This particular disc allows us to sample some esoteric music in the Schoenberg catalog, and some removed quite unfairly. To speak to the latter first, the composer's remarkably sweet and romantic Chamber Symphony No. 2 – started as early as 1906 (right after the first one) but completed, with some stylistic conundrums and difficulties, in 1939 – would surely have an attractive following in this day and age were it presented more frequently. There is nothing to dislike, or even consider disliking, as the work is replete with Gurrelieder-like harmonies and big sweeping post-romantic sentiment. Craft's Philharmonia plays it gloriously here.

Die gluckliche Hand (The Hand of Fate) is a strange animal. It's autobiographical: Schoenberg as the consummate artist with a huge ego wanting to be loved – recently abandoned by his wife (she returns to him later after Webern insists he take her back). It's odd: a mixture of pantomime, song, chorus, and stage drama; the work was perhaps destined to never be performed because no one could quite figure out exactly what it is. Listening to this 2000 recording by Craft, I am beginning to believe that after all is said and done it really belongs to the recorded realm alone, not with all of the distracting appurtenances that Schoenberg attached to it. The high symbolism – in the beginning a man is lying down, head towards the audience with a hyena creature gnawing at his neck – takes a very descriptive program to explain it all, and one has to ask the value of such a work if such verbal explanations are needed. No, it seems to me that reading what Craft provides us here and then listening to some very powerful music is the antidote to this work's particular performance ills.

The last work here, played to stunning effect by the New York Woodwind Quintet, comes from around 1920, when the composer had solidified his 12-tone technique, especially in such pieces as the genius-laden Piano Pieces, Op. 25. The technique is so profoundly difficult in this work that original performance lasted an hour, as the tempos Schoenberg insisted on could not be met. Now apparently, they can, as this one clocks in using the proper markings at around 38 minutes. It is thorny but rewarding, as almost all of Schoenberg is. His use of color, not only in judicious mixture of the available winds, but in the conflicts among the various registers of each instrument, is particularly interesting.

All in all a sumptuous disc for the Schoenbergian partisan--novices might want to start with Transfigured Night or the aforementioned Gurrelieder, but this is a splendid album capture in clear and vibrantly honest sound.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2008

Arnold Schoenberg’s name has become so inexorably linked with atonal music

Arnold Schoenberg’s name has become so inexorably linked with atonal music, it has deflected many from the fact that at both ends of his career he was writing in a lush post-Romantic style. That is particularly true of the Second Symphony which began life in 1906 but remained uncompleted until 1939, by which time he had begun a new life in the United States. It has moments when you hear Richard Strauss and at times invites comparison with Stravinsky. The second movement is highly demanding on the orchestra, and its neglect may well come from that fact. Here it receives a performance of exemplary precision from the Philharmonia, the conductor, Robert Craft, being my ideal Schoenberg interpreter. The choral work, Die gluckliche Hand, was commenced only three years later, but already the Schoenberg style has totally changed. Using his own libretto, the dramatic scenario is in four sections, and reflect Schoenberg’s own life to that point. It is scored for bass, chorus and orchestra, the soloist given a quite unrewarding roll, The Simon Joly Chorale deal well with music that is not easy to pitch. The issue is completed with the Wind Quintet completed in 1924, and extends atonality and serial technique to about as far as it can go. It is a long work lasting almost forty minutes, and to the majority of concert-goers has proved a step too far, though the playing of the New York Woodwind Quintet is superb. The first two works have been previously available on the Koch label and are of excellently detailed sound; the Quintet comes is a very up-front American recording made in 2004.

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