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James H. North
Fanfare, January 2010

Craft was the first to record Webern’s “complete” works, back in the 1950s. His four-LP monaural Columbia album was a revelation—and a tribute to the commercial daring of Columbia’s Goddard Lieberson. Although there had been four or five earlier recordings of single Webern works, Craft’s set joined only one other Webern piece in the 1957 Schwann catalogs. It was to remain available for more than two decades, until succeeded by Boulez’s stereo remake in 1979, dubbed—at the last minute—Vol. 1 because a trove of previously unknown works had been discovered. While the stereo LPs were a great improvement, both for their sound quality and their performances, the latter were due to the singers and players more than to the conductor. Webern had gained respect—indeed, had become the guru of musical academia—and musicians were leaning how to perform his works. The learning curve continued well into the CD era; an appropriate punctuation being the 1992 appearance of a superb Webern disc by the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra (nla). Now everyone could play Webern (if not yet sing him), not just the avant-garde specialists. Listeners of my generation learned Webern from that first Craft set, and we are forever in his debt. If he could not then convince us of the music’s beauty, he drew our attention and piqued our interest.

The Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble is a group contracted for Craft’s recordings, its players handpicked by cellist Fred Sherry. Personnel listings for each piece show it to include the best of free-lance American musicians—I am almost afraid to name some, for fear of slighting equally superb colleagues: Charles Neidlich, William Purvis, Paul Neubauer, and Sherry are so well known that I don’t even need to list their instruments. Soprano Arnold, professor of voice at SUNY Buffalo, is a renowned new-music specialist; she sings Webern with glorious panache. These recordings were made during 2007 and 2008—the Philharmonia sessions at EMI’s Abbey Road Studio No. 1, the American ones at SUNY Purchase, New York, and at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City. The solo songs (at SUNY) are clean and clear, but the chorus (at Abbey Road) is set in a reverberant acoustic that denies us the exact words, even with libretto in hand. As usual with Naxos, librettos are posted on the Internet, but the texts of Das Augenlicht and of the Second Cantata are missing.

One of the pleasures of any Craft release is reading his feisty, superbly informed, damn-the-torpedoes program notes. As usual, he insists that these performances are the only correct ones: “[W]e can blame the failure to understand this piece [the op. 30 Variations] on the ignoring of Webern’s admonition to follow his metronomic markings. The present recording is the first attempt to play the work at metronomic speed…

The Big City, December 2009

IVES, C.: Holidays Symphony (excerpts) / The General Slocum / Overture in G minor (Malmo Symphony, Sinclair) 8.559370
WEBERN, A.: Vocal and Orchestral Works - 5 Pieces / 5 Sacred Songs / Variations / Bach-Musical Offering: Ricercar (Craft) (Webern, Vol. 2) 8.557531
MOE, E.: Strange Exclaiming Music / Teeth of the Sea / Rough Winds Do Shake the Darling Buds / I Have Only One Itching Desire / Market Forces 8.559612

The title says ‘best of,’ but this is more like favorite music of the year, recordings that sound great and excite and please first and last. No matter the analysis or exploration of meaning, this is my list of music that I went back to again and again, just to listen to and enjoy in 2009:

It was a good year for René Jacobs, with a notable recording of Idomeneo. What I love more, though, is his new release of Haydn’s The Creation. His partnership with the Freiburger Barockorchester is one of the most exciting things in classical music today. The sound they have developed together seems the point and culmination of decades of exploring the idea of how baroque and classical music was heard when it was brand new; the sinewy, tart ensemble seems a direct expression of both conductor and the music they perform. This set grabs the attention with the best imaginable conveyance of Haydn’s representation of order forming out of chaos; every other recording I have heard presents the music as a structure coming together out of smaller fragments, and to that Jacobs adds the very idea of sound cohering out of chaos. I’ve heard no other music like this, of any kind. As usual he adds a group of stellar singers, Julia Kleiter, Maximilian Schmitt and Johannes Weisser. A fantastic recording. Here’s a sample:

Naxos puts out a vast amount of high quality music, and even at the budget price still produces recordings that are as good as they come. The company would be welcome if all they were doing was recording the standard classical repertoire, but they are important because their ambitions are greater than that. Two of their current projects are the recording of the music of Anton von Webern under the eminent conductor Robert Craft, and their tremendous American Classics series, which seeks to present, in the broadest sense, the classical music history of this country—past, present and future—and is so far succeeding beyond expectations. The second volume of Webern’s music was released this year, and features Craft leading the composer’s crystalline orchestration of Bach’s Ricercata, the Op. 5 Five Movements for String Orchestra and the great Five Pieces for Orchestra (Op. 10) and Variations (Op. 30), along with vocal and choral music. Webern was a great composer, his atonality exceedingly lyrical and beguiling, and these performances are beautiful and expressive, demanding attention.

American music means, inevitably, Charles Ives, and Naxos have already produced an extensive body of recordings of the composer, featuring rare and previously unrecorded works. All of these have been good to excellent, and their new Ives recording is their best yet and one of the best CDs of the composer’s music I’ve encountered. James Sinclair leads the Malmo Symphony and Chamber Chorus in three of the four tones poems that later made up the Holidays Symphony, interspersed with shorter works, including an interesting Overture in G Minor from the days when Ives was enthralled to Brahms and The General Slocum, a Central Park In The Dark type piece based around ‘The Sidewalks of New York.’ The Holidays movements are the finest expressions of his ideas and work and these performances are tremendous, played with the combination of great tenderness and revelry in chaos which this music requires and which is so very hard to balance. From beginning to end the performances bring for the mystic chords of memory and the choral entry and singing on the last track, ‘Thanksgiving and Forefathers Day,’ is stunning and incredibly moving.

More recent is a collection of music from Eric Moe, Strange Exclaiming Music, works for violin, saxophone and percussion. Moe has the sensibility and craft to write rigorous, serious music which communicates clearly to the listener with verve and fervor. The title piece is a violin sonata which acknowledges a tradition from Beethoven to John Adams, with an appealing gravity and rhythmic vitality. There’s an appreciation for the physical quality of rhythm that Stravinsky captured and a very American sense of lyricism coupled with a tough, determined stance. Everything sounds great, and this is not just an excellent introduction to the composer but a purely excellent disc in its own right.

David W Moore
American Record Guide, November 2009

This is a remarkably full disc containing a great deal of music, all recorded with sonic realism and played in a relaxed manner that leaves the listener free to absorb this complex music without shoving it down his [or her – Ed] throat with no dressing…[soprano Tony] Arnold has a sweet, clear sound, and everyone seems highly competent…there are excellent notes by Craft…

Arnold Whittall
Gramophone, October 2009

Austerity and precision do not distract from the integrity of Webern’s vision

Now in his eighties, Robert Craft is re-recording Webern more than half a century after his pioneering CBS album. This instalment mixes early, middle and late compositions in an order that makes an effective programme when heard straight through. Both British and American artists are involved, and recordings were made in London and New York during 2007 and 2008.

Craft has not lost his edge: his admirably extensive booklet-notes detail the failings of Webern performance materials (a new, complete and definitive edition is at last being planned), and the inadequacies of other conductors (Boulez is shamed but not named). Whether or not adhering precisely to the published metronome markings is invariably a good thing, Craft’s performances are certainly characterful and precise. It could be the recording process that has flattened out some of the dynamic shadings that he would surely have insisted on in actual performance; and other features of the sound—like an exceptionally prominent alto saxophone in the rarefied cantata Das Augenlicht—might have been an intentional interpretative nuance, jarring though it is.

The need for contrapuntal clarity could also explain the rather unatmospheric acoustic, more helpful to singers than instrumentalists. Soprano Tony Arnold is admirably mellifluous in the song sets, the wide-spanning lines given their full lyrical weight. Claire Booth and David Wilson-Johnson are no less impressive in Webern’s last completed work, the Op 31 Cantata.

This disc also includes Webern’s most strongly contrasted orchestral scores, the fugitive Op 10 Pieces and the craggy Variations, Op 30. Their effect in these sharply delineated performances—a quality no less apparent in the ultra-eccentric arrangement of Bach’s Ricercata—may be more austere than affectionate, but the fierce originality and integrity of Webern’s vision of musical perfection is never in doubt.

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