April 12, 2007


Schoenberg: Herzgewächse, op. 20; Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21; Four Orchestral Songs, op. 22; Chamber Symphony No. 1 (original version), op. 6. Eileen Hulse, soprano, with members of the London Symphony Orchestra (Herzgewächse); Anja Silja, Sprechstimme, with members of the Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble (Pierrot Lunaire); Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano, with the Philharmonia Orchestra (Four Orchestral Songs); Twentieth Century Chamber Ensemble (Chamber Symphony No. 1). Conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $8.99.

Serebrier: Symphony No. 2 (Partita); Fantasia for Strings; Sonata for Violin Solo; Winterreise. José Serebrier conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra; Gonzalo Acosta, violin (Sonata for Violin Solo). Naxos. $8.99.

      Between these two CDs lies nearly a century of innovation in classical music, from Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1 (1906) to Serebrier’s Winterreise (1999). Although the disks are no survey of the 20th century and come nowhere near to encompassing all its trends, countertrends and would-be trends that went nowhere, they are interesting examples of some of the directions in which musicians tried to go, with greater or lesser success, during the past 100 years.

      The latest entry in Naxos’ excellent Robert Craft Collection focuses mostly on vocal music, and it is fascinating to see how Schoenberg developed within three consecutive opus numbers. In Herzgewächse (1911), which translates more or less as “Heart’s Foliage,” the delicacy of instrumental writing is impressive, while the singing is largely Romantic in style – albeit with sudden leaps to the extreme top of coloratura-soprano range. A year later, in Pierrot Lunaire, there is no singing at all – only the famed (and often parodied) Schoenbergian Sprechstimme, which sounds quite dramatically different from traditional classical singing when Pierrot Lunaire is heard immediately after Herzgewächse. Sprechstimme represented a genuine advance by Schoenberg (although it has roots in Wagner), and the composer used it quite effectively in his settings of 21 moon-related poems. The careful, minimalist accompaniment in Pierrot Lunaire reflects the flickering moods. The first set of seven poems is relatively simple. The darker second set is more vocally and instrumentally demanding, with some dramatic effects: “Gallows” is cut off abruptly after just 18 seconds, and while “Beheading” lasts more than two minutes, its second half is all instrumental. The third set is even more intricate than the second, but ends in tranquility. As original as Schoenberg’s vocal and instrumental settings are, they are also reflective of the time in which he wrote – the piano part at the end of “Parody,” for example, sounds like nothing less than a work by Charles Ives.

      Four Orchestral Songs is only one opus number after Pierrot Lunaire, but it came four years later – in 1916, the middle of World War I. In these songs of very dark sentiment there is strong contrast between the long lines of the vocals, which in some ways hark back to Herzgewächse and earlier songs, and the fragmentary nature of the instrumental accompaniment. It is a shame that non-German speakers will never get the full force of this CD: Naxos makes the German texts available online, but without translation – a serious omission where these works are concerned.

      The fascinating Chamber Symphony No. 1 does not quite fit with the other pieces here, but Robert Craft does a superb job with this very difficult work for five strings and 10 winds. The complexities for the players are considerable, but those for listeners are less so, since Schoenberg wrote this piece in 1906, well before delving into full atonality. The symphony sounds somewhat like an extension of Wagner in places, but the instrumental combinations and striking rhythms are Schoenberg characteristics even in this relatively early work, and its overall effect is very impressive.

      José Serebrier’s Symphony No. 2 dates to 52 years later – 1958 – and was the composer’s first commission: he wrote it at age 19. Despite forays into atonality, it represents a different direction in 20th-century music from Schoenberg’s. This is well-structured, strongly rhythmic, often dancelike music with some clear influences of other composers: Copland seems to hover over parts of the first movement, while Mahler’s grotesqueries appear to have influenced the second, whose drum rolls and percussion are impressive. Although the second movement is designated “Funeral March,” it is actually less marchlike than the third, in which atonality is prominent. The final “Fugue” sounds more like Gershwin’s Cuban Overture than a Bach fugue, building to an apparent climax that is followed, after a pause, by a trivial flute-and-percussion tune that leads to the actual conclusion. It’s a witty and well-wrought piece.

      The Fantasia for Strings of 1960 flows well, moving easily from mood to mood, with a section juxtaposing pizzicato and legato playing being particularly effective. The Sonata for Violin Solo is less listenable: it has no real structure, but explores various tempi and bowing techniques more in the mode of a fantasy than that of a sonata. It doesn’t really sustain too well – as sections start, they rapidly devolve – but this piece is worth hearing because it was Serebrier’s very first composition: he wrote it at the age of nine.

      By 1999, as the 20th century wound down, Serebrier had passed his 60th birthday, and his Winterreise shows more maturity and command of orchestral forces than anything else on this CD. This piece is a revision of the composer’s 1991 Violin Concerto, with some very clever and interesting touches – notably the inclusion of quotations from much older winter music by Haydn, Glazunov and Tchaikovsky. Serebrier conducts his own music with the same attentiveness and skill he brings to that of other composers, and in this piece in particular, the effect is as bracing as the wind on a bright, cold winter day. And it is interesting to observe that 20th-century classical music, which developed in part by rejecting older forms, had by century’s end become accepting enough of old styles to allow Serebrier to include direct quotations of much earlier classical pieces in this work – and to make them his own.

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