Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 2/Die Gluckliche Hand/Wind Quintet

Conductor Robert Craft's series of recordings of the work of the renowned modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg for the Naxos label includes this interesting combination of works showing the range of material produced by Schoenberg over a long, productive career.

The Chamber Symphony No. 2 was begun in 1906 when the composer was in his early thirties and the first of the two movements bore the hallmarks of the romantic approach to lush melodies and fairly standard harmonies of the era, but with a new ending and different instrumentation when Schoenberg completed the work in 1939.

The second and longer movement, however, is reflective of the changes in the composer's approaches in the three decades since his first attempt.  In a rapid allegro tempo, the movement emphasized polyphony, a syncopated rhythm and a complexity that makes the performing far more challenging from the musicians than the simpler first movement.

A "drama with music," the four movement "Hand of Fate" from 1913, just after Schoenberg's famed "Pierrot Lunaire.  It was an impressionistic pantomime for two silent performers, the main being "The Man," or Schoenberg as an artist, who confronts the ego and its desire for fame.  The opening scene finds a Greek-style chorus offstage mocking "The Man" for his blatant desires as he lies outstretched on the stage.

A woman then appears with a goblet for the man who, taking the drink, does not acknowledge the woman, who then leaves with another man, but later returns, before once again departing.  This mirrored Schoenberg's painful experience of having his wife elope with an artist, who then hung himself, and the spouse, at the urging of the composer's student, Anton Webern, returned to her husband.

In a third scene, the man finds a goldsmithng operation in a cave and determines to do the work better than the workers there.  In so doing, he inadvertently creates a jeweled crown of incredible proportions while crushing the anvil in the shop.  As he gives the object to the stunned workers, they attack him.  Suddenly the woman and the third man she'd left with earlier return and the female ascends a high mountain with the artist in pursuit.  From the pinnacle, however, she flings a large rock down and crushes the artist.

In the final scene, there is a return to the beginnings of the pantomime with the chorus again mocking the prostrate man.

The symbolism is also musical with the artist representing Schoenberg's new method of composing (serialist, twelve-tone row) crushing the tonality of tradition (the anvil) and revealing the crown (atonal music), which he attempts to give to the workers (composers trapped in old forms) who, of course, attack him for his impudence.

Speaking of which, the Wind Quintet of 1923-24, finds Schoenberg deep in the early stages of his serial development, composing a symphonic sonata in four movements that stretches for nearly forty minutes.  Between the new sounds expressed in twelve-tone form, the length of the work, and the fact that it is a technically demanding piece for the tempos involved, this work contrasts significantly with the others.

Adjusting for the atonal form of hearing twelve tones, rather than a piece developed around a single note (or tone, expressed as the tonic), ordered in a row called a "basic set," which forms the basis, but is not the entirety, for the piece, as the tones relate to one another without a dominant tonic.

There is a richness, nimbleness, and range of fascinating instrumental contrasts in this work that can be very rewarding, even for amateurs who don't fully appreciate the systemic concepts embodied in the serial technique.  There is no question, even for the untrained ear, that the dispensing of traditional tonal and harmonic approaches gives the music a more "open ended" form that, to this listener, finds the "speech patterns" among the various instruments compelling and intriguing.

This disc is an excellent survey of different aspects of Schoenberg's evolution as a composer over a thirty-plus year timespan, carried out by Craft's passion and expertise in developing the project of recording all of Schoenberg's published pieces for Naxos.

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