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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHOENBERG / BERG / WEBERN: Piano Music
By David J. Fanning
By Edward Dorell
New Straits Times (Malaysia)
"IT is amazing that no one thought of issuing the complete piano solo works of the Second Viennese School of composers on one CD till Naxos came out with this disc in 1999.
For the total works of Schoenberg, played at the slowest speeds (as here), last just under an hour, and the single works of Berg and Webern together only 20 minutes. A big cheer then for Naxos' enterprise and generosity.
Of the three composers Berg, for his Romantic warmth, has always been the most accessible and popular. Not, however, in his official opus 1, the least attractive piece on this disc.
The culmination and only completed of six student attempts at composing a sonata form movement, his Sonata is a Mahler-fevered but nevertheless cerebral hothouse of inter-related musical cells weaving above, beneath and through each other, permeated by an angular bony beauty which listeners should at least appreciate, even if they cannot love, after a few hearings.
It is the generally colder, more clinical Schoenberg who is here far more accomplished and pleasant to the ear, precisely for his impeccable balance between form and emotion, and technique and spontaneity, his clear textures, and an Austrian lightness and wit.
Over four decades after my student years, when I first encountered them, the first two pieces of opus 11 (1909) no longer sound brutally atonal but in fact like what they have always been, meditative and dramatic late Romantic tone poems. The third piece, however, is as adventurous now as at first.
Of the initially forbidding later sets of 1920-23, the Suite for Piano, op. 25 is a fascinating Baroque-structured set of dances and pieces in Schoenberg's newly-discovered serial mode, its opening Prludium a breathless toccata, the middle Intermezzo an intense slow movement, and the three dances, Gavotte, Menuett and Gigue, graceful, humorous and spirited through and through.
As for the Five Piano Pieces, op. 23, they are surely the culmination of Schoenberg's writing for the piano, the quiet opening three-part invention and shimmering nocturne and Waltz (nos. 3 and 5) alternating with explosive (no. 2) and whimsical (no. 4) scherzi.
Finally, in Webern's Variations, op. 27 we have totally concentrated serial music that is not at all difficult to understand, since the sparsely noted theme and variations are easily identified, their diamond-like precision and glitter an impressive climax to the Second Viennese School's oeuvre for piano solo.
Quoting two of Webern's pupils in his brochure note, that the composer stressed his Variations 'structural intricacies must give rise to a profound expressiveness' in performance, Peter Hill applies the same principle to his Berg and Schoenberg interpretations.
Played this way, his Berg sonata is certainly more delicate, though not necessarily more attractive, than, say, Jean-Jacques Dunki's forthright account (on Jecklin-disco JD 643-2), which includes some of the earlier sonata fragments (reviewed by me on Oct 6, 1999).
But his Webern is absolutelymore....
Schoenberg was a largely self-taught composer;
yet he became the most influential teacher of his time. Among his earliest
pupils, from the autumn of 1904, were Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Both would
remain close to their teacher long after their apprentice years were over, so
much so that the three are known collectively as the 'Second Viennese School'
Despite the nutorious revolutionary nature of
his own music, as a teacher Schoenberg instilled a deep respect for tradition.
These apparently contradictory facets of Schoenberg's influence meet and fuse
in the Sonata (1908) which Berg
wrote towards the end of his four years of study, and which must rank as music
history's most extraordinary Op. 1. Berg seems to have intended the work as a
sort of graduation piece, as is apparent in the conscientious working out of
ideas, or in the classical shape of its one-movement structure. Yet any sense
of worthy student essay is swept aside in the titanic struggle between, on the
one side, the new world, into which Schoenberg was moving, and the former ties
of key and tonality to which the Sonata just,
but only just, remains anchored. A microcosm of Berg's vision is the very first
phrase, an angular rising motif or 'question', from which the music drifts,
through a melodic sequence inflected by chromatic and wholetone harmonies, to
find its answer in B minor, the nominal key of the Sonata. These initial ideas pervade almost every bar, in a
lava-flow of inspiration, stemmed only by lyrical transitions of intense
beauty. The music's passionate search for resolution proves elusive, however,
until at the very end, in a sublime coda, Berg
quietly but emphatically sides with tradition.
For Schoenberg, as for many twentieth-century
composers, the piano was the medium for experiment, to which he turned at two
key points in his development One came around 1909 when with the pace of change
in his music threatening to become overwhelming, Schoenberg completed a series
of works of extreme radicalism, the song-cycle Das
Buch der hiingenden Garten, the Five
Pieces for Orchestra, Op,16, and
the monodrama Erwartung. This achievement
was in spite of personal tragedy, the elopement of Schoenberg's wife, Mathilde,
with his friend the painter Richard Gerstl, who subsequently committed suicide,
and public incomprehension, as in the hostile reception in 1908 of the Second String Quartet, The Three Piano Pieces
In the miniature world of Schoenberg's next
set, the Six Little Piano Piece,
Op.19, these forces come under microscopic scrutiny In the first, a capricious
pre-echo of Pierrot Lunaire, tiny fragments flicker,
strut, and dissolve, reforming into an eloquent line which, however, at once
freezes into silence. The central pieces explore opposites a mechanical ticking
crossed by a plunging melody, rich harmonies shadowed by pianissimo octaves, a jerky march savagely
dismissed, an easy-going line troubled by an uneasy afterthought. The most
withdrawn of the set is the last composed after Schoenberg had attended
Mahler's funeral in May 1911, its bell-like chords disappearing in a scarcely
The silvery, weightless counterpoint of the
first of the Five Piano Pieces,
Op.23, opens a decisive new
phase. This was the time (1921-3) when Schoenberg was evolving his twelve-note
technique, a method of organizing his music around a central twelve-note row,
or 'series'. The idea originated in the cell technique outlined earlier in the
description of Op. 11, No. 1; and
Schoenberg's rapid acceleration from manipulating small motifs towards a single
all-embracing cell, one which encompasses all twelve notes of the chromatic
scale, can be charted as Op.23 unfolds,
the set ending with the piece which is one of Schoenberg's first essays in
serial technique (the very first being the Präludium
from the Suite,
Op.25). From this distance in time the controversy over Schoenberg's method
seems, thankfully, less important than the musical ends which it served. What
one can say with some certainty is that Schoenberg's new-found technical
confidence is reflected in the balance and fluency of the group of pieces as a
whole, enhanced by a tendency towards stylisation. This is especially clear in
the outer pieces, the first being a sort of three-part 'invention', the fifth a
lilting Waltz which dissolves
enigmatically in mysterious rustlings and tremblings. The most extended piece
is the third, built on the five notes heard in isolation at its opening. This
embryonic series becomes a sort of cantus
firmus supporting intricate variations, and finally intertwining
with itself in a gracefully balletic canon-by-inversion. The shorter second and
fourth pieces contribute to the overall suggestion of symmetry being, in
effect, a pair of scherzi, the
former taut, compressed and explosive, its companion more whimsical, but still
with an undercurrent of instability.
While the transitional Op.23 pieces are subtle and elusive, even
impressionistic, in their piano writing, the Suite,
Op.25 proclaims its new sureness
of language and technique with sardonic glee. Any listener who anticipates from
its eighteenth-century dance titles some well-manicured essay in neo-classicism
is in for a shock. The Präludium is
no leisurely introduction but instead bristles with competing sources of
energy. The Gavotte is similarly
waspish, set off by its dancing, spirited central section, a Musette, which teases the ear as
Schoenberg distorts the traditional bagpipe 'drone' from a perfect fifth to a tritone - and, since these are the
notes (G to D flat) common to the two forms of the series used here by
Schoenberg, all kinds of witty interplay ensue. Calm descends in the central Intermezzo, a spacious slow movement of
considerable intensity. The poise of the Menuett,
however, seems only skin deep, especially in the light of its Trio, a brusque exercise in canonic
pedantry. Consistent to the last in turning every expectation on its head, the
music of the famous Gigue is a tour-de-force of deception, a wild gallop
strewn with false downbeats, and rhythmic thickets, complicated by myriad
intricacies of touch the whole making one of the twentieth century's supremely exhilarating
(and ferociously taxing) pianistic obstacle courses.
If the marvellous Suite makes a natural climax to Schoenberg's music for solo
piano, the remaining two pieces, Op33A and
33B, add a substantial afterthought. In both a transformation is made In' A' an
urbane neo-classicism, complete with graceful secondary theme, slithers
towards a troubled, even belligerent, conclusion. In '8' the opening, again
genial, sets a lyrical line against a lively and ultimately disruptive counterpoint.
Their pas-de-deux ends, however,
with a serene rapprochement, unravelling
unhurriedly as the lines ebb, flow and recede to the depths of the keyboard.
Schoenberg's celebrated dictum, 'My music is
not modern, it is merely badly played' might equally have been said by Webern.
For years the prevailing orthodoxy in Webern performance was to match the
music's austere appearance on the page with playing that was rigorously impersonal.
A contrary view was advocated by two former pupils of Webern who came to
Britain as refugees in the late 1930s the pianist, Else Cross, who taught at
the Royal Academy of Music, and the critic and pianist Peter Stadlen, who gave
the first performance, in 1937, of the Variations,
Op.27, Webern's only mature piano
work. Both agreed that what Webern stressed to performers was that the music's
structural intricacies must give rise to a profound expressiveness. The
relationship between structure and expression may be illustrated by the second
movement of the Variations. At
first glance we see a single page of music, in binary form (the two halves
being repeated) and in a very quick tempo Each tiny event consists of a pair
(of single notes or chords), each half of the pair belonging to a different
variant of the twelve-note series; these variants, however, are constructed so
that when combined the same pairs constantly recur. This game of pairs is
underlined by the distribution between the pianist's hands, with frequent
hand-crossings, on which, despite one or two physical awkwardnesses, Webern was
absolutely insistent. A final twist is that each pair is in effect a tiny
mirror, since every note is equidistant (with its opposite in the pair) from a
central pitch - the A above middle C - recognisable to the ear because Webem
allows this A to form a pair with itself Small wonder that Webern stressed to
Stadlen and Cross that the essence of the piece lay in its playfulness,
likening it to the effervescent >finale, the
Badinerie, from Bach's Orchestral Suite in B minor. By the same
token Webem compared the first movement, with its fragile mirror forms,
drifting in and out of waltz-time, to an Intermezzo
by Brahms. These first two movements serve as characterful preludes
to the last and longest of the three, in which the variations proper unfold. In
each variation the pattern is to interweave an active constituent with a
reflective one; the former appears to gain the upper hand in a display of
trenchant syncopations, only for syncopations again (but of a different
character) to guide the music to its final, muted distillation.
Peter Hill is one of the foremost exponents of
the twentieth century piano repertoire Among his many recordings is a complete
cycle of all Messiaen's piano music, made in collaboration with the composer,
which has received superlative acclaim and has been described as 'one of the
most impressive solo recording projects of recent years' (New York Times). Recordings for Naxos
include a recital (with Benjamin Frith) of fourhand music by Stravinsky (Naxos
8.553386). Well known as a writer and broadcaster Peter Hill is a Professor
in the Music Department of Sheffield University. Among his publications is a
major study of Messiaen, The Messiaen
Companion (Faber and Faber). He is at present writing a book on
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SCHOENBERG / BERG / WEBERN: Piano Music