December 21, 2006


Schoenberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16; Cello Concerto (After G.M. Monn); Orchestration of Brahms Piano Quartet in G Minor, op. 25.  Robert Craft conducting the Philharmonia and London Symphony Orchestras; Fred Sherry, cello. Naxos. $8.99.

Shostakovich: The Golden Age (complete ballet). José Serebrier conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     The directions that classical music took during the 20th century were many and varied – and sometimes contradictory.  It was often difficult for audiences to get a handle on what was going on, especially when contrary trends occurred simultaneously.  This sometimes happened even within the work of the same composer, with Arnold Schoenberg being a prime example.

     Naxos’ superb Robert Craft Collection now offers one of its most intriguing CDs, in which the earliest of three pieces is the most “Schoenbergian” and the latest is such an orchestral showpiece that parts of it might fit into a pops concert.  The earliest work here, Five Pieces for Orchestra, dates to 1919 and reflects Schoenberg’s efforts to develop an entirely new, yet entirely (in his view) Germanic, musical form.  The always-fascinating booklet notes, by Craft himself, quote Schoenberg as saying, “I cannot unreservedly agree with the distinction between colour and pitch,” and this synesthetic approach clearly informs these pieces.  They have titles that Schoenberg attached reluctantly after his publisher requested them, but the composer did not want the titles to provide clues to the work.  For example, he called the first two movements “Premonitions” and “The Past,” then noted of the first, “everyone has those,” and of the second, “everyone has that, too.”  The point of this music, whose technical complexity is considerable, is the music, as usual in Schoenberg.  The pieces offer a welter of rhythmic and chordal difficulty for both performers and listeners, with Craft’s uniformly understanding performance being a wholly sympathetic one.

     Another direction Schoenberg took was in reverse – or rather his own sort of reverse, which meant looking back at works of the past and changing them to fit his, Schoenberg’s, sense of esthetics.  There was a certain breathtaking arrogance to the way Schoenberg did this.  In 1932, in freely adapting a cello concerto written by Georg Matthias Monn in 1746, Schoenberg noted that the work was Handelian, then said, “My principal concern was to get rid of the deficiencies of the Handelian style” – which he proceeded to enumerate at some length.  Were Schoenberg not himself a genius, this would be self-aggrandizement of the highest order.  In fact, while Schoenberg scarcely improves on mid-18th-century forms, he certainly turns Monn’s work into a cello showpiece – so much so that the great Pablo Casals, for whom Schoenberg wrote it, considered it too difficult and refused to play it.  Fred Sherry plays it very well indeed, and if it sounds neither wholly of the 18th century nor wholly of the 20th, that is perhaps inevitable in a hybrid work like this.

     As for Schoenberg’s 1937 orchestration of the Brahms G Minor Piano Quartet: it manages to sound like neither Brahms nor Schoenberg.  It’s a fascinating piece, whose creation shows another element of Schoenberg’s supreme self-confidence: “I think I resolved this problem [of chord figures], but this merit of mine will not mean very much to our present day musicians because they do not know about them and if you tell them there are such, they do not care.”  Hmm.  Yes.  Well.  Robert Craft clearly cares a great deal, and his reading of this work makes it a genuine showpiece, with a finale whose trumpet glissandi, xylophone and glockenspiel speak of gleeful virtuosity for its own sake.

     While Schoenberg was going down his various roads, Dmitri Shostakovich was looking for his.  In the 1930s, Shostakovich wrote three full-length ballets that were intended as models of the sort of uplifting, socially conscious music that was expected in the newly coalescing Soviet Union.  The Golden Age (1930) was the first, followed by The Bolt (1931) and The Limpid Stream (1934), both of which reuse some Golden Age material.  Shostakovich had real talent for theater composition, although he eventually abandoned it in favor of symphonies, chamber pieces and opera.  The Golden Age at its full two-and-a-half-hour length is a lot to take, even in a performance as splendid as José Serebrier’s with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  The music is just so determinedly upbeat for all Soviet-related elements, and so black-and-white in its characterizations, that it is really a bit much.  And many of the scene titles, which were seriously meant, are laughable today: “A Rare Case of Mass Hysteria,” “Conversation between the Director of the Exhibition and the Fascist,” “Mime of the Agents Provocateurs,” “The Touching Coalition of the Classes, Slightly Fraudulent,” and so on.  The ballet’s story is about a Soviet soccer team that visits a Western city and finds its heroism undermined by bourgeois hostility and decadence, until the eventual “Total Unveiling of the Conspiracy” and a surprisingly Tchaikovskian “Final Dance of Solidarity.”

     There are a few excellent pieces within the ballet, including a beautiful, symphonic Adagio called “Dance of Diva” (the work’s longest piece), a showstopping Cancan at the end of the fifth of the six scenes, a Polka that has become well known and that uses the xylophone intriguingly, and an entr’acte consisting of Shostakovich’s arrangement of the song “Tea for Two.”  But much of the music is aggressively strident, punching its way through major key after major key – although flashes of Shostakovich’s sarcasm are everywhere.  The ballet was a failure – as choreography, not ideology – and only a few pieces from it are performed nowadays.  In some ways it represents the road not taken by Shostakovich, who grew constantly as an artist despite Soviet strictures and occasional official condemnation.  Like his Third Symphony (“The First of May”) of 1929, The Golden Age celebrates what deserves little celebration.  But it is a fascinating work to hear – perhaps not straight through, but certainly bit by bit.

No comments:

Post a Comment