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Gavin Dixon
Gramophone, September 2014

The Specialist’s Guide To…Works With Narrator #9

‘If thou hadst died as honour dies, Some new Napoleon might arise, To shame the world again…’ In 1942, Byron’s Ode to Napoleon, written the day after the Emperor’s abdication, seemed grimly prophetic. Schoenberg’s setting for speaker, piano and string quartet channels Beethoven, referencing the E flat major of the Eroica Symphony and motifs from the Fifth, in its contemplation of parallels between dictators past and present. © 2014 Gramophone

Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, March 2009

Craft’s years of experience can be heard in the accomplished and polished performances and read in his insightful notes.

The choral work is uniformly excellent. Powerful, full-toned, and ardent… © 2009 Fanfare Read complete review

James H. North
Fanfare, March 2009

…Craft is working his magic on Schoenberg again. It takes a moment or two for an American ear to accept Wilson-Johnson’s English accent, but he proves a forceful, dramatic Warsaw survivor; chorus and orchestra are magnificent. This is by far the best performance I know, turning what once seemed an odd little piece into a mighty music drama. Schoenberg’s Prelude was the strongest of the pieces written for the Genesis Suite…

Recorded sound is clean as a whistle, with none of the warm reverberance we are used to hearing from Naxos. Wilson-Johnson’s every word is clear, and the bright, forward sound befits Schoenberg’s angular but always dramatic music to a T. © 2009 Fanfare Read complete review

David W Moore
American Record Guide, March 2009

Here is Volume 10 of Robert Craft’s collection of the works of Arnold Schoenberg. This performance of the Violin Concerto originally appeared on Koch. The rest of the material was recorded from 2005 to 2007. It consists of the composer’s two works with the spoken voice, A Survivor from Warsaw and the hostile Ode to Napoleon in its chamber setting. Wilson-Johnson is a dramatic reciter, though I find his pronunciation of the word “reveille” a bit disturbing.

The rest of the pieces are basically choral and include Schoenberg’s last two compositions for unaccompanied chorus. The Chorale is clear, and the recording excellent. It is a curious program in that there is very little here that could be clearly identified as 12-tone, apart from the concerto. Craft has calmed down a good deal since his first Schoenberg survey on LP. That was so dry in sound that I ended by replacing it with Boulez. His new collection is more attractive in both recorded sound and interpretation and is well worth investigating. Schulte plays the concerto with poetry, and Craft accompanies him with warmth.

Rob Cowan
Gramophone, January 2009

A hard-hitting, invaluable disc–an essential addition to the series

Rolf Schulte and Robert Craft credibly project a work that sounds like an extension of Brahms's language in terms of Schoenberg's treatment of the orchestra and his melodic structures. Schulte's performance reminds me of Huberman's bon mot about Brahms setting the violin against the orchestra: it's a gutsy, fiercely intense interpretation with next to nothing of Hahn's centredness about it, though Craft's sane but enthusiastic conducting assures a workable temperature beyond the solo line…Most of Craft's programme is fervid stuff. Both A Survivor from Warsaw and Ode to Napoleon are fired-up reactions to the Second World War, the former—a concise and startling music drama magnificently scored for full orchestra—is a chilling slice of narrative about Nazi brutality; the latter—a 15-minute chamber work that waves a clenched fist for the duration —is a bold indictment of totalitarianism, based on a poem by Byron. Both works place English recitations centre-stage, declaimed with clarity and dramatic zeal by David Wilson-Johnson.

Craft's direction is very much “straight from the hip”, and the results are at the very least humbling. The Genesis Prelude is terse and powerful, and the two choral works, both at times starkly beautiful, take their prompts from Schoenberg's Jewish roots.

This is not an easy programme to take in at a single sitting, but it's a valuable one; an essential addition to Craft's invaluable Schoenberg series.

Ewan McCormick
MusicWeb International, November 2008

This latest instalment in the Naxos Robert Craft series contains a mixture of newly recorded items and one work, the Violin Concerto, that has already appeared on Koch Classics in 2000. Comprising largely music composed during the last ten years of Schoenberg’s life, the disc also reflects to a large extent the émigré composer’s preoccupation with his Jewish heritage as his life drew to a close.

The disc opens with the powerful Survivor from Warsaw, Schoenberg’s moving response to a Nazi atrocity in the Second World War. Schoenberg gave this a universal significance by playing down the Warsaw location and concentrating instead on the atrocity itself, an incident in which weak, elderly and starved Jews were systematically liquidated by the Nazi cohorts, and one that was repeated time and again throughout the war. This work had huge personal significance to the composer, as he wrote in 1948:

“Now, what the text of the Survivor means to me: it means at first a warning to all Jews, never to forget what has been done to us, never to forget that even people who did not do it themselves, agreed with them and many of them found it necessary to treat us this way. We should never forget this, even such things have not been done in the manner in which I describe in the Survivor. This does not matter. The main thing is, that I saw it in my imagination.”

If memory serves, Craft has recorded this before, with Simon Callow as narrator, but this is a new version with David Wilson-Johnson and the Philharmonia. While the choral and orchestral contribution make their mark under Craft’s watchful baton, I have heard performances of the narration which were more vividly re-enacted than that by Wilson-Johnson. In particular the delineation of the different episodes in the story and of its various characters, from the prisoners to the German sergeant, could have been more sharply defined. This is a work which demands commitment and involvement over accuracy to the score. However the final chorus makes an overwhelming effect. In the same 1948 letter Schoenberg wrote. “The Shema Jisroel at the end has a special meaning to me. I think, the Shema Jisroel is the ‘Glaubensbekenntnis,’ the confession of the Jew. It is our thinking of the one, eternal, God who is invisible, who forbids imitation, who forbids to make a picture and all these things, which you perhaps have realised when you read my Moses und Aron und Der biblische Weg [Moses and Aaron and the Biblical Way]. The miracle is, to me, that all these people who might have forgotten, for years, that they are Jews, suddenly facing death, remember who they are.”

The Prelude to Genesis was written as part of the same commission from the composer and publisher Nathaniel Shilkret that resulted in Stravinsky’s miniature cantata Babel. Schoenberg’s was one of a series of works written to reflect various events in the Book of Genesis. Other music featured in this unusual project included Cain and Abel by Milhaud; The Flood by Castelnuovo-Tedesco and The Covenant by Ernst Toch. Bartok, Hindemith and Prokofiev were also approached but did not contribute in the event. Schoenberg’s Prelude, a twentieth-century “Representation of Chaos”, begins with fugal entries representing the moment of creation itself and includes a wordless chorus whose unaccompanied vocalise brings the piece to a rather unexpected conclusion.

Dreimal Tausend Jahre and Psalm 130 are Schoenberg’s final works. Providing a further reminder of his Jewish faith, here the music represents a distillation of his life’s work. Passages of quasi-tonality alternate with angular 12-tone themes and sprechgesang. Excellent performances and recordings.

We move to New York briefly for the recording of Ode to Napoleon, in which David Wilson-Johnson is joined by the Fred Sherry Quartet and pianist Jeremy Denk. This setting of Byron, whose poem pulled no punches in its condemnation of the French emperor, also served as a pertinent condemnation of Hitler during the Second World War. Of his decision to compose the piece, Schoenberg wrote: “I knew it was the moral duty of intelligentsia to take a stand against tyranny.” First performed at Carnegie Hall by Mack Harrell and Rodzinski in an orchestral version which was later abandoned, Schoenberg attempted to ensure the dramatic values of the work were given full rein by notating precisely the rhythms and dynamic of the spoken text. The performance is first-rate.

Finally, to the main work on the disc, the 1936 Violin Concerto. On its original appearance Rolf Schulte’s coolly accurate performance of Schoenberg’s work was generally much admired, supported as it was by the analytical clarity of Craft’s conducting and the well-balanced sound. Accurate and involved in the opening movement, Schulte is affectionate in the central Andante grazioso, and he and Craft even manage to create genuine Brahmsian warmth as the movement progresses, followed by exuberance in the closing Alla Marcia. However Hilary Hahn’s recent performances and recording have added a new dimension to our understanding of this challenging piece. Hahn brings a warmth and romanticism to the concerto, and perhaps ultimately a sheer love of the music, which Shulte and Craft do not quite match. But it’s a close run thing, and some may prefer the cooler approach on this disc. Certainly in terms of sound there’s not much to choose between them.

A fascinating collection of music by one of the twentieth century greats, performed by one of his most eloquent advocates. Don’t miss it.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2008

As part of Robert Craft’s ongoing cycle of Schoenberg’s orchestral output, this new release is among the foremost recordings of the composer’s works currently available. It contains a thoughtfully fashioned performance of the Violin Concerto with Rolf Schulte as soloist that has already been available on the Koch label. He offers an intense view of the score stressing its uncompromising modernity and stands at the opposite pole to my own much preferred performance from Hyman Bress on a long deleted Supraphon LP where the lyric qualities are more in evidence. There has to be room for both approaches, Schulte a violinist of impressive adroitness who packs plenty of strength when required, the orchestra carrying the main thrust of the opening movement with the soloist adding extra tonal dimension. Where I have no doubt is in the new and chilling performance of A Survivor from Warsaw with David Wilson-Johnson as narrator. He never gets overheated to the horror of the scene, yet creates more fear than any performance I have encountered. Simon Joly Chorale show they are the top choral contemporary music ensemble in Dreimal Tausend Jahre and Psalm 130 but it comes as a bit of a jolt when we move to the tight ambience of a New York session with the Fred Sherry Quartet and David Wilson-Johnson in the Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, the sound so different you would hardly recognise Wilson-Johnson. Elsewhere the Philharmonia are in superb form and provide a very potent backdrop to the concerto. Much recommended.

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