May 18, 2006


Schoenberg: Serenade, op. 24; Variations for Orchestra, op. 31; Bach Orchestrations: Fuga (St. Anne)…Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele…Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist. Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble with Stephen Varcoe, bass (Serenade); Philharmonia Orchestra (Variations, Orchestrations). Conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $8.99.

Mátyás Seiber: Concertino for Clarinet and Strings (1951); Antal Doráti: Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra (1977); Zoltán Kodály: Symphony (1961). Louisville Orchestra conducted by Jorge Mester (Seiber, Doráti) and Robert Whitney (Kodály). James Livingston, clarinet (Seiber). János Starker, cello (Doráti). First Edition. $12.99.

     The fact that the variation form is prominent in every original work on these two CDs says something important about 20th-century compositions and composers.  Variations, however cleverly done, are in essence repetitions of the same idea: a composer has something specific to say and keeps saying it, again and again, in a number of different guises.  The third movement of Schoenberg’s Serenade, “Variations,” is “the most delectable of the seven,” Robert Craft writes in the notes to the latest CD in Naxos’ superb Robert Craft Collection.  The Variations for Orchestra are generally deemed Schoenberg’s greatest orchestral work.  The Variazoni semplice movement of Seiber’s Concertino is the longest in this five-movement work.  The central movement of Doráti’s Concerto is marked Variazioni, and the central movement of Kodály’s three-movement Symphony is also in variation form, though not so marked.

     These two CDs come from two of the most important and excellent sources of performances of 20th-century music.  Craft’s knowledge of and skill with the music of Stravinsky and Schoenberg is nearly legendary.  Here, he offers a Serenade of verve and spirit, fully immersed in atonality and (in the one vocal movement, a sonata by Petrarch) in Schoenberg’s characteristic handling of the human voice.  The Variations are wonderful: bright and dense and complex and entirely listenable without the need to know anything about the techniques with which they were composed.  And the three Bach Orchestrations show a side of Schoenberg less well known than his forays into atonality.  Fuga (St. Anne) builds through a brass-focused section to a full-orchestra climax worthy of Stokowski (could it have influenced his Bach transcriptions?).  The two chorale preludes seem like fuller musical expressions than Bach’s originals, with an especially lovely cello part in Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele.  These are expansions and, in a way, reinterpretations of Bach, but with great respect for the composer’s originals.

     Yet Craft’s notes inadvertently show why so much 20th-century music is difficult for audiences.  Writing of the Serenade, he points out that the vocal movement starts with the first two notes of a 12-tone series, then adds, “Each note is followed by a mandolin/guitar chord containing the remaining ten pitches of the chromatic scale.  The twelve pitches are then exposed in melodic order in the vocal part, and repeated in the same order twelve times (the twelfth is incomplete), but with differences in octave registers and in the position of the series vis-à-vis the musical phrases.”  This is difficult enough to follow in prose.  Human ears, perhaps excepting those of Schoenberg and Craft, do not naturally hear this way, and while they can be trained to do so, should such training really be necessary for every concertgoer?

     The question remains an open one on the First Edition CD.  Though less well known than Craft’s work, the Louisville Orchestra’s commissions and First Edition LP records were extraordinarily important sources of new music from the 1950s through the 1970s.  This CD, part of a series of reissues, shows just how valuable the series was: all three works here were world premiere recordings.  Mátyás Seiber’s Concertino, recorded in 1969, is remarkably accessible music, very difficult to play but much less difficult to hear and enjoy. The wonderful conductor Antal Doráti was less well known as a composer but was certainly a skilled musical craftsman, and his Concerto – recorded in 1977, the year it was written – could scarcely be played better than it is here, by the great János Starker.  Nevertheless, the work is not wholly successful, though its central variations, each with its own title and characteristic phrasing, are interesting.

     And then there is Zoltán Kodály’s Symphony.  The great composer finally got around to this form at age 79, and handled it with aplomb.  The work was recorded in 1962, in the then-standard monophonic sound: all the music was funneled into a single central track, without any audible sense of placement of orchestral instruments.  The result is a performance that feels somewhat squashed, in the absence of an aural indication of what is coming from where in the orchestra.  Still, the work sounds effective in many sections, with the dancelike finale moving along particularly enthusiastically.

     Anyone interested in building a top-notch collection of 20th-century music would do well to include both these CDs in it.

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