January 19, 2006


Busoni: Fantasia Contrappuntistica; Improvisation on the Bach Chorale “Wie wohl ist mir, o Freund der Seele”; Fantasie für eine Orgelwalze; Duettino Concertante nach Mozart. Allan Schiller and John Humphreys, pianos. Naxos. $7.99.

Schoenberg: Six A Cappella Mixed Choruses; String Quartet No. 2; Suite in G for String Orchestra. Robert Craft directing Simon Joly Singers (Choruses); Fred Sherry String Quartet with Jennifer Welch-Babidge, soprano (Quartet); Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble (Suite). Naxos. $7.99.

     The deeply ambivalent feelings of 20th-century composers for earlier music are strongly in evidence on those exceptionally well-performed CDs.  Both Ferruccio Busoni and Arnold Schoenberg professed great respect for past composers and the forms they employed, but both found those forms unreasonably constricting of their own talents – and Schoenberg, of course, ended up discarding harmony, the basis of all that had gone before, altogether.

     Yet neither composer ever fully escaped the past, and it is hard not to believe that neither really wanted to.  Busoni sought to internalize and modify what had gone before; Schoenberg, to rise above it and create a new musical language.  After hearing these CDs, listeners will have a good opportunity to decide for themselves the extent to which each composer succeeded.

     Busoni’s huge Fantasia Contrappuntistica sounds better in the two-piano version from 1922 – the composer’s final iteration of this often-revised work – than in any earlier version.  Allan Schiller and John Humphreys have played together for 30 years, and it shows: their interrelationship sounds almost magical (which means it results from a considerable amount of hard work).  This is dense, complex music that can easily become turgid – but not in this performance, which is limpid and filled with understanding.  Busoni’s incorporation and reinterpretation of Bach comes across as a monumental work on its own terms and in its own right.

     The other works on this CD are more straightforward and of somewhat less interest – though still enjoyable to hear.  The Improvisation combines elements of Bach’s chorale with variations Busoni originally composed for a violin sonata.  It seems neither wholly Bach nor wholly Busoni – a transitional work for the latter’s evolving style.  The two pieces based on Mozart are lighter still.  Orgelwalze means “barrel-organ,” and Busoni’s piece is based on a late and rather serious fantasy for that instrument (K. 608).  It is less effective than Mozart’s original and does not add much to it.  The Duettino Concertante adds even less to its source – the finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19 – but comes across better.  This is Busoni at his most unassuming, free of the intellectual pretension that tends to intrude into much of his work.  It is more arrangement than interpretation – and, as such, is effectively pianistic and pleasant to hear.

     Unlike Busoni, Schoenberg seems always to have found a way to make the past his own, even when the resulting music is less “Schoenbergian” than most of his works.  The Six A Cappella Mixed Choruses, three from 1928 and three from 1948, are remarkably tonal and polyphonic for mature works by Schoenberg.  All are based on 16th-century folk songs and pay homage to that time.  Yet Schoenberg’s hand is ever-present and ever-clear, in subtleties of balance, use of different voice ranges, and unusual contrasts – such as that between the 1928 and 1948 settings of the same song, “Two Good Maiden Friends.”

     The Suite in G – yes, it has a key signature – is also mature Schoenberg (1934) and also beholden to olden times.  It was the first piece Schoenberg wrote in America and was intended for student performance – but is so difficult that even professionals have trouble with it (though the Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble seems not to).  Cast as a Baroque suite – Overture, Adagio, Minuet, Gavotte and Gigue – Schoenberg’s work combines the bare outlines of old forms with highly modern approaches to harmony, counterpoint and rhythm.  Its elegance, for instance in the contrasts between legato and pizzicato sections, is decidedly of a 20th-century kind.

     The only work on this CD not tied directly to the past is Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, here given in its original form: two purely instrumental movements and two with soprano.  The piece is tonal (F-sharp minor) and clearly reaching out in new directions: it dates to 1907, when Schoenberg was still finding his way into history.  Its motto could be the soprano’s first line from the final movement: Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten – “I feel the breeze from another planet.”  There is something otherworldly about the work as a whole.

     This CD is the latest in Naxos’ superb Robert Craft Collection – a series showcasing much little-heard music with unerring style and skill.

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