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Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, November 2010

Robert Craft’s extensive new series of Schoenberg recordings continues apace with this release, Vol. 11 (for those who are keeping score at home). As indicated in my earlier review of his new version of Pelleas et Mélisande, this new series has far lusher, more reverberant sound than his earlier Columbia recordings, which obscures some detail even though it retains some of the old fire. I was very curious to hear this disc, however, as it contains works he did not previously record and indicates that his oeuvre will now include chamber pieces that don’t necessarily need a conductor, even though he is listed as such on the CD box and booklet.

Sixty years after his death, Schoenberg remains an acquired taste—to some, a taste they’d rather not acquire at all. The problem is not, and never was, that his music is completely inaccessible but that the rigorous rules of 12-tone music make it more of a mind game than an expressive device. Craft and the chamber musicians involved in the present release try to overcome this obstacle by infusing their performances with a goodly amount of real emotion. Despite their good intentions, however, the String Trio strikes me as overly busy and consistently neurotic. Atypical of Schoenberg, he published the trio with a detailed chart, measure by measure, of the form of the piece. Well, any music that needs that much explanation, even to the performers, isn’t going to do much to communicate to any but the most dedicated atonal buff.

On the other hand, the Four Pieces and Three Satires for mixed chorus are—for atonal music—quite a bit of fun to listen to. Here, Schoenberg breaks up the rhythmic patterns and, especially in the Four Pieces, produces some exceptionally fine choral writing. Most whimsical of all is the third Satire, “Der neue Klassizismus,” which keeps seesawing back and forth between 4/4 and 3/4, and even within the 3/4 time, fractions the beats to keep the listener off-balance. I loved it!

Also very playful, despite its density, is the Septet-Suite, which is very close in spirit and feeling to the Serenade (one of my personal favorite of all Schoenberg works, and to this day one of his most popular pieces). One thing that really makes this piece work, for me, is the sound quality. By switching recording venues to Master Sound Astoria Studios in New York, we are treated to absolutely superb sonics for such a chamber work, clear as a bell with only a bit of natural resonance. Would that the entire series was recorded this way. I’m not sure if Schoenberg indicated that the piano be somewhat recessed in volume, or if this was a decision by Craft or the musicians, but it works beautifully, making the instrument sound more like a xylophone in the way it fits into the musical texture. As the piano is pushed a bit back from the microphone, the bass clarinet is brought forward, and this, too, imparts a richness of balance to the sound texture that I find particularly warm and rewarding.

But Craft, and Naxos, save the best piece for last. Despite the over-reverberant, almost goopy ambience, Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene is an absolute masterpiece that morphs and grows and moves with a real Viennese rhythmic lilt despite its dense scoring and atonal structure. Craft explains the reason: The earlier of the nine episodes are written in somewhat slower tempos that build gradually toward the ninth and last, “Catastrophe.” I would, however, also give a large amount of credit for the work’s success to Craft’s wonderful sense of proportion and the way he builds and releases tension.

Stephen D Chakwin Jr
American Record Guide, July 2010

The Trio is a tribute to the great Mozart Divertimento in E-flat, the most beautiful and perfect string trio ever written. Schoenberg, a string player himself, doubtless knew the piece inside out, and his own trio was a tribute to his great artistic ancestor. He was also claiming sufficient stature in his own right for a tribute from him to Mozart to have some meaning, and showing that his new method of composing could produce works on the level of Mozart’s.

I’ll leave it to others to assign the rankings of the two trios, but the Schoenberg is a worthy piece in its own right and a pleasure to hear. You won’t walk down the street whistling its tunes (that’s what the Mozart is for), but your spirits will rise along with your energy level (at least once you attune yourself to Schoenberg’s spiky sound).

The players here are fine ones and work well together (Sherry was an artistic mentor to O’Neil); and the performance is a worthy addition to a discography adorned by many fine readings, including two with Robert Mann’s inimitable spirit (and fortunately inimitable intonation) (one early and one late in his career) and the Arditti performance that came with that quartet’s survey of the composer’s string chamber music. Worth the price of the disc by itself.

The Septet is another airborne performance by fine chamber players. It’s a lighter piece than the trio, but longer and perhaps easier to appreciate.

Schoenberg’s choral music is not often performed, which is a shame, since the composer of Gurrelieder knew how to write for voices, individually and in ensemble. The seven works here are all short, all pleasant, and none of great depth. My best guess is that these performances are one step past good sight-readings by expert performers. The choral forces are small. If you have the Boulez recordings of the choral works on Sony, you won’t need these. If not, here is a cheap way to sample them.

The short orchestral music that was written to accompany a hypothetical film was an attempt to show that his style of writing could work even in music written for a broad public. Perhaps it was also his invitation to Hollywood to engage him. It’s in three sections, called ‘Menacing Danger’, ‘Fear’, and ‘Catastrophe’; and it’s pretty exciting. This is Craft’s second (or third) recording of it (I’m not sure whether the monaural 1961 and stereo 1967 Columbia recordings are of the same performance.) This recording was issued on Koch in 1995 and still sounds good. Craft is not a very compelling conductor, though the LSO plays well for him. The control and shaping of the music audible in the Boulez (Sony) or Inbal (Denon) performances cannot be found here. Boulez, especially, makes the piece a daunting, if not draining, experience. Still, there’s enough here to get the idea and, as a filler for really good performances of the Trio and the Serenade, the Accompaniment is welcome. If it moves people on to the Boulez disc and therefore leads them to the First Chamber Symphony and Jacob’s Ladder, it’s more than welcome.

Craft’s writing, perceptive and clear, is as compelling as his music-making isn’t. The notes that he contributed to the booklet are a joy. Sherry, who is a great performer, is almost as good a writer; and his contributions to the notes are also welcome.

Arnold Whitall
Gramophone, June 2010

Angry expressionism gives way to wistful lyricism in this latest instalment…Schoenberg’s voice—complexity and expressive immediacy inextricably interwoven—is heard to powerful effect.

Joshua Meggitt
Cyclic Defrost, April 2010

The music of Arnold Schoenberg may have lost its ability to shock, but it retains its power to awe, particularly when performed with the excitement and vigour present here. Naxos have been issuing the complete—or near complete—works conducted by long-time friend and collaborator Robert Craft, and this 11th volume features a selection of chamber and vocal pieces written over a twenty five year period.

The highlight is the Opus 45 String Trio of 1946. Written after a near fatal collapse, Schoenberg applies serial technique to ‘humorously represent’ the experience, the jagged leaps and extraordinary sonorities presumably intended to depict the fear of what he felt was a heart attack, the later haze brought on by the administration of opiates, and a hallucination involving ‘Jean the male nurse’. It’s one of Schoenberg’s most virtuosic pieces, initially deemed unplayable, but delivered with frightening intensity by Rolf Schulte, Richard O’Neill and Fred Sherry. Schoenberg’s amusing discussion of this ‘episode’, its inspiration for the Trio and that work’s later inspiration for Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus is provided in the liner notes, and well worth reading.

The longest work here is the Opus 29 Septet Suite for piano, clarinets and string trio of 1925–26, a mere four years after his invention/discovery of twelve-tone serialism. Neoclassical forms appear—it ends in a Gigue, and one movement was originally titled ‘Dance of the Foxtrot’—but Schoenberg creates such jaunty dances in his own fiercely modernist way, and packs numerous personal references into the piece. The Septet-Suite has been extensively studied as a core example of serialism, and anyone wishing to learn more about the work, and Schoenberg’s compositional approach, should study Martha Hyde’s Schoenberg’s Twelve-Tone Harmony: The Suite Op. 29 and the Compositional Sketches.

The Opus 34 Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene of 1930 must be one of the earliest pieces of music written for an imaginary film, a now burgeoning ‘genre’ all too frequently featured on these pages. One can indeed imagine visual action alongside the music’s steady momentum, and the tonal basis revisits the expressionist angst of earlier works such as Verklate Nacht. The CD also features two choral scores, the Four Pieces for Mixed Chorus, featuring text by Schoenberg, and the Three Satires for Mixed Chorus, apparently a thinly veiled attack on composer Ernst Krenek. This, like all previously issued volumes in the series, is essential for anyone interested in the work of the twentieth century’s most important composer.

Jim Leonard, April 2010

This disc directed by Robert Craft will be compulsory listening for Schoenberg fans. All the works here come from the second half of the composer’s career, that is, after he had invented the dodecaphonic system. The program includes two chamber works, the String Trio, Op. 45, and the Septet-Suite, Op. 29; two pieces of choral music, the Four Pieces for Mixed Chorus, Op. 27, and the Three Satires for Mixed Chorus, Op. 28; and one orchestral work, the Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, Op. 34. In every case, Craft has assembled a crack team of players, including the London Symphony, the Simon Joly Chorale, and Rolf Schulte, Richard O’Neill, and Fred Sherry. They deliver note-perfect performances that are nevertheless full of passion and insight. The String Trio, said to depict the composer’s heart attack, is truly frightening, and the Three Satires, one of which pokes fun at Stravinsky, are truly funny. The Septet-Suite…is at least as smooth and sweet as Schoenberg ever got. Craft, whose history with the composer went back five decades, is completely under the skin of the music, and his dedication is total and unquestioning. Listeners for whom dodecaphonic music has the charm of fingernails on a blackboard may not find this disc to their liking, but it should be of interest to anyone with an interest in art music from the first half of the 20th century. Although the performances were recorded in different times and places for different labels, the sound is consistently clear and clean…

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2010

As Robert Craft’s landmark recording of Schoenberg’s complete works draws to a close, the present disc is a compilation of diverse scores written over a period of twenty-five years. They all come from his atonal years, the String Trio from 1946 an exercise of pure twelve-note origins and presenting the performers with a work the composer thought ‘almost impossible to play’. It certainly throws up some unusual sonorities, but the general context of the five-movement score calls for listeners who are deeply into the Second Viennese School. The following three works all date from the period 1925–26, the two choral scores very exacting as the composer sought to expanding on existing choral traditions, though it does not always emerge like that. The Three Satires for Mixed Chorus with its piano trio accompaniment could be your way into the disc, for it has melody to hook your interest. The Septet-Suite is the disc’s most extended work and is scored for piano quartet and three clarinets. Highly active and extremely complex, Schoenberg again uses traditions, ending with a Gigue, as the basis for his modern make-over. The Accompaniment for a Cinematographic Scene is scored for symphony orchestra and its imagined action pushes the music forward by ever increasing tempos. That formed part of the recordings made in London together with the choral works. The chamber music uses top ranking American instrumentalists, the Septet and the final track having been previously available. All recorded rather forward in a typical American way.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group