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CLASSICAL  January 2008

CLASSICAL January 2008

Subject:

Accentus sings Schoenberg

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 3 Jan 2008 16:13:25 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Accentus
Schoenberg

*  Friede auf Erden, op. 13, for choir and orchestra^^*
*  Farben (from 5 Pieces for Orchestra), op. 16/3 (arr. Krawczyk)*
*  3 Volksliedsaetze (1929)*
*  Friede auf Erden, op. 13, for mixed choir a cappella*
*  Kammersymphonie #1, op. 9^
*  Verbundenheit (from 6 Pieces for Male Chorus, op. 35)*
*  Dreimal tausend Jahre, op. 50a*
*  De profundis, op. 50b*

Ensemble Intercontemporain/Jonathan Nott^, Lawrence Equilbey^^
Accentus/Lawrence Equilbey*
Nayve V5008 Total time: 64:10

Summary for the Busy Executive: For once, the music, rather than the
theory.

Charles Ives once wondered aloud, "Are my ears on wrong?" Every so
often, I wonder the same thing about myself.  The music I get really
excited about, most of my fellow classical-music enthusiasts don't know.
I admit I didn't always "like" Schoenberg, but I was behaving like an
eight-year-old convinced he hates cauliflower untasted.  After all,
I had heard only a couple of pieces, not that well performed, and even
then it took several revelations before I changed my mind.  Furthermore,
to this day, Verklaerte Nacht, Schoenberg's most popular piece and the
one I began with, bores me worse than "Feelings," which is at least
shorter.  My first breakthroughs were choral.  I heard Robert Shaw's
On Tour album from the Sixties (RCA LSC-2676, never issued on CD) which
offered one of the great Schoenberg performances down to this day: Friede
auf Erden, 1911 version.  Gurrelieder knocked my socks off.  After that,
I got to sing both Dreimal tausend Jahre and De profundis, as well as
Friede, the 6 Pieces for Male Chorus, and two of the Satiren.  Around
this time, and probably coincident with the publication of the so-called
Schoenberg Edition of the composer's works, Columbia embarked on the
"complete" Schoenberg project, but, with few exceptions, the performances
did nothing to encourage anybody other than wonks to take up the music.
Indeed, the best account for years of the piano concerto I encountered
was not the recording by Glenn Gould and Robert Craft, but one given by
students on two pianos.

Still, as my mother often told me, every little bit helps. 
Performances bred other performances and eventually better performances.
By the Nineties, the level of Schoenberg interpretation had risen to a
level of consistent decency, and now it seems to soar, not just in the
choral department either.  Standards of playing and musicianship have
in general shot up since I first skipped to concert halls, and the
Schoenberg idiom has become more and more familiar to players and
interpreters.  For a long time, many people referred to the Schoenberg
"system," rather than to Schoenberg's music, as if the two were identical.
Schoenberg's system is embarrassingly skimpy stuff, taken as an intellectual
object (if he had only known mathematics, it wouldn't have taken him
over a decade to come up with it), and I've always thought of it as a
practical (and brilliant) musician's response to the problems of composing
in a late, post-Wagnerian Romantic idiom.  The system means little apart
from the music it produces.  Schoenberg, a great thinker about music,
fortunately was an even better composer, and really good composers, even
tonal composers, have not only followed paths he laid down, but carved
their own from the original road.  When Hilary Hahn can talk about the
"lyricism" of the Schoenberg violin concerto without a single mention
of Schoenbergian technical jargon, I'd say we're at the point of taking
Schoenberg straight as music.

Most important, a good performance does matter. The Nineties saw a
steady trickle of accounts that played Schoenberg musically.  In the
past few years, we have begun to get a steady trickle of great accounts:
Gielen-Brendel, Dohnanyi-Uchida of the piano concerto, Huber-Stuttgart
and now Equilbey-Accentus on the choral music.  Indeed, Accentus raises
the bar for everyone, with the best recording of this repertoire available.

Friede auf Erden exists in two forms: the original a cappella version
of 1907, and the version with chamber ensemble of 1911.  Schoenberg,
so convinced of its impossibility for unaccompanied voices, was driven
to writing the second version, where instruments could give the singers
a little help. In reality, though difficult, it's no more so than Richard
Strauss's choral music (which it resembles).  Basically, it's the
late-Romantic orchestra translated to the chorus - lush, changing textures
and lots of subsidiary counterpoint.  A chorus of amateurs, led by Anton
Webern, first performed the a cappella version in the Twenties.  For
purists, this has become *the* version, but I harbor an affectionate
preference for the instrumental accompaniment.  After all, Schoenberg
was one of the great orchestrators, and within his spare instrumentation,
he comes up with something gorgeous.  Accentus turns in the best account
I've heard of the unaccompanied version, so it's nice to report that it
hasn't rendered the choir-and-instruments version obsolete.  Accentus
also comes up with the best account of that version as well.  Again, I
think it edges out the original.  Both performances master the work's
architecture.  The singing is yummy - superb intonation and a clarity
that allows the listener to marvel at the composer's obsession with
musical history (references to Beethoven's Missa Solemnis constitute
merely one element of a very rich mix) and contrapuntal control.

The arrangement of the "Farben" movement from the 5 Orchestral
Pieces comes across as, at best, superfluous.  The orchestral
original virtuosically shows orchestral colors melting into one
another at the level of the melody line.  Schoenberg called the effect
Klangfarbenmelodie, sound-color-melody.  It's possible to only a limited
extent in voices, and the arranger, Krawczyk, really doesn't exploit
even this reduced possibility.  He relies mainly on ostentatiously audible
breathing as his main effect, which might have worked neatly, had he
also come up with something more relevant.  Even Accentus can't save
this.  A Mills Brothers arrangement has more of the necessary wit than
this does.

If you harbor doubts about Schoenberg as a great composer, the 3
Volksliedsaetze (3 folksongs) should drive them out, and he never even
gave them an opus number.  In 1928, the German government commissioned
these beautiful gems, and Schoenberg selected the texts from a collection
of medieval folk poetry.  The settings could have been written by Brahms
in his final period, a combination of meditative funk and luxurious tonal
counterpoint that results in a good cry over lost things.  If you like
something like Brahms's "Im Herbst" from the opus 104 or "O susser Mai"
from op. 93, these should appeal to you.

"Verbundenheit" (solidarity), the last of the 6 Pieces for Male Chorus
and my favorite of the set, plays off the German Maennerchor tradition,
especially as practiced by Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, with
their fondness for the dark, rich sonority of men's voices.  It's the
vocal equivalent of massed horns.  It may even be serial, for all I know,
but the outstanding feature of it comes across as barely-related chords
that create a powerful forward movement.  Vaughan Williams and Debussy
create similar effects with their unusual harmonic progressions.  You
can't call it atonality, and you can see why Schoenberg himself hated
the term.  Schoenberg stretches tonality to its limit, but that counts
for less than creating beauty.  It's like listening to a sequence of
"magic" chords.

Dreimal tausend Jahre (thrice a thousand years) and De profundis,
on the other hand, definitely fall into the serial category.  They
constitute the last pieces Schoenberg composed to the finish.  He
wrote them both in the aftermath of the founding of the State of Israel.
Dreimal sets a poem by Schoenberg's publisher, one Dagobert Runes, about
a Jew returning to Palestine.  It's not a great poem, and Schoenberg may
have set to work as a way of keeping Runes sweet.  Nevertheless, the
composer came up with a masterpiece, strongly related to the Brahmsian
Romantic part-song, yet with a more philosophical tone.  Both works also
come from a time when Schoenberg wanted to forge strong connections from
traditional tonality to his new music.  Actually, I have long thought
that Schoenberg was so steeped in post-Wagnerian harmonic practice and
voice-leading that, like Stravinsky in *his* serial period, he never
ever got completely away from tonality.  I tend to hear the works of the
late period as tonal - so, for me, Schoenberg succeeded - but as tonality
happening at high speed.  De profundis, a setting of Psalm 130, sets up
an opposition between solo and duo lines and rhythmically-declaimed
speech (Sprechstimme), to create a powerful image of a cantor and his
davning flock.

The CD also includes a magnificent performance of the first Chamber
Symphony by the Ensemble Intercontemporain led by Jonathan Nott - why,
I can't tell you.  Nevertheless, I've not heard a better, although
I have encountered some as good.  Still, I would have preferred the
complete 6 Pieces for Male Chorus or, dare I say it, the Kol nidre.

Equilbey and her troops have swept away my previous standard, Huber
and his Southwest German Radio (Stuttgart) Choir.  Huber did well,
don't misunderstand me, but there lingered about his readings the air
of preparation and blueprint.  Equilbey gives you music.  Obviously, she
has trained her singers and players - superb intonation, diction, tone,
etc.  - but they no longer sound as if they're taking a test. Even if
you currently hate Schoenberg's music, you should give this disc a try.

Steve Schwartz

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