November 29, 2007


Schoenberg: Six Songs for Soprano and Orchestra; Friede auf Erden; Six Pieces for Male Chorus a cappella; Ei, du Lütte; Kol Nidre, for Rabbi-Narrator, Mixed Chorus and Orchestra; Moses und Aron: Excerpts from “The Golden Calf and the Altar.” Jennifer Welch-Babidge, soprano; David Wilson-Johnson, rabbi-narrator; Simon Joly Chorale; Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $8.99.

Reznicek: Eine Lustspiel-Ouvertüre; Theme and Variations for Full Orchestra and Bass Solo after the Poem “Tragische Geschichte” by Adalbert [sic] von Chamisso; Symphonic Variations on “Kol Nidre.” Alexander Vassiliev, bass; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln conducted by Michail Jurowski. Also includes Eine Lustspiel-Ouvertüre and “Donna Diana” Overture with the composer conducting Grosses Opernorchester Parlophon. CPO. $16.99.

      That the two Austrian composers Arnold Schoenberg and Emil Nikolaus von Reznicek should both have created 20th-century works based on “Kol Nidre” is not in itself surprising: the tune sung at the start of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, had already been famously used as the basis of Max Bruch’s work for cello and orchestra in 1881. Nor is it surprising that the Schoenberg and Reznicek works based on “Kol Nidre” should reflect such different approaches, since these composers’ mature styles were so thoroughly distinct. Yet hearing the “Kol Nidre” works and the others on these new CDs does engender a thought of just how divergent musical language became in the 20th century, even for composers who were contemporaries: Schoenberg lived from 1874 to 1951, Reznicek from 1860 to 1945.

      The new Schoenberg CD is the latest release in Naxos’ excellent Robert Craft Collection, which is showing again and again just how much mastery of Schoenberg’s works Craft has – and what excellent performances he obtains from disparate forces. This particular CD is, unfortunately, a bit of a mishmash, containing works written from 1895 to 1938, offered in no particularly clear order; and the CD suffers from some unfortunate presentation. Strictly from a musical standpoint, though, it is top-notch. Six Songs for Soprano and Orchestra (1903-4) is an intense, strongly Wagnerian work that Jennifer Welch-Babidge sings with understanding and intensity. Friede auf Erden (“Peace on Earth,” 1907) is an attractive piece for mixed chorus, sung with lovely sound by the Simon Joly Chorale. That group’s male voices do an outstanding job with Six Pieces for Male Chorus a cappella (1929-30), a very difficult and quite moving piece sung to the composer’s own texts. Ei, du Lütte (1895-6) functions as a sort of choral encore: an upbeat one-minute work in Low German dialect. As for Kol Nidre, for Rabbi-Narrator, Mixed Chorus and Orchestra (1938), it is a dramatic and intense work, in English, strongly narrated by David Wilson-Johnson in a text that Schoenberg altered from the traditional to reflect his own view of the words; here the strengths of the narrator, chorus and orchestra combine into a moving and intense piece. And there is also intensity aplenty in the excerpts from Schoenberg’s unfinished opera, Moses und Aron, with Welch-Babidge’s voice soaring above the grotesqueries and building brutality of the “Golden Calf” scene.

      Unfortunately for listeners not already intimately familiar with this music, this CD’s presentation is utterly unhelpful in understanding it. Craft’s notes are so detail-oriented as to be genuinely obscure, as when (to cite one example among many) he writes of one of the Six Songs, “The style is still indebted to Die Walküre, most overtly at bar 429.” Furthermore, the CD includes no texts; and while some of the words are available online through Naxos, they are offered only in German – useless for English speakers who cannot translate them on their own. The Moses und Aron words are not offered online at all, nor are the English ones for Kol Nidre. None of this detracts from the quality of the performances – just from listeners’ enjoyment of them.

      The works by Reznicek come from a different sonic world. A friend of Mahler, a colleague and occasional friend of Richard Strauss, Reznicek stuck with tonality long after Schoenberg and his followers had abandoned it. But he found his own unusual and creative approaches to music. Eine Lustspiel-Ouvertüre (“Comic Overture,” 1895) was written a year after the composer’s biggest hit, the opera Donna Diana, and partakes of some of the same lightheartedness as that opera’s justly famous overture. It has some intricate rhythms and unusual turns of phrase, all of which the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln under Michail Jurowski handles apparently effortlessly. It is a curtain raiser on this CD for the fascinating and offbeat Chamisso Variations (1921), which are for orchestra alone until they end with a bass singing the mocking “Tragic History” of a man having a bad hair day. (The poet’s first name, Adelbert, is misspelled in the work’s title.) The Chamisso Variations lead up to the theme of their final section rather than being derived from it; and they contain passages reminiscent of Mahler and, even more strongly, of Richard Strauss, with whom Reznicek had been having some musical quarrels. Indeed, the Chamisso Variations sound on more than one occasion like Till Eulenspiegel turned inside-out. They also contain an impressive funeral march that, in context, is wholly out of proportion to their subject matter.

      Reznicek’s handling of Kol Nidre is more serious and equally impressive. These variations, written in 1929, are so intricately intertwined that it is hard to say for sure just how many there are. The Mahler influence is clear here as well – notably in a section marked “Tempo di Ländler” – and there are also snatches of operetta-like tunes, plus allusions to Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, all within a totality that sounds like no one else’s music. Reznicek is careful to give the Kol Nidre melody itself fully serious treatment, especially in the opening section (marked “Largo religioso”) and the extended final one.

      The CD contains two “bonus tracks” on which Reznicek himself can be heard conducting two of his overtures in recordings made in 1922. “Can be heard” is a bit of an exaggeration: the sound is truly execrable, and the performances have only minimal value even as historical documents, since so little instrumental balance is audible. The most interesting thing to be learned is that Reznicek significantly slowed down the last six notes of the Donna Diana overture – but whether that was how he wanted the work conducted, or had something to do with the exigencies of recording 85 years ago, it is impossible to know. Jurowski and the players of WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln serve this fascinating music much better.

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