Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No 2, Die Glückliche Hand, Wind Quintet / Beesley, Craft

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SCHOENBERG Chamber Symphony No. 2. 1 Die glückliche Hand. 2 Wind Quintet, op. 26 3 Robert Craft, cond; Philharmonia O; 1,2 Mark Beesley (bs); 2 Simon Joly Chorale; 2 New York Ww Qnt 3 NAXOS 8.557526 (78:21)

This disc combines two reissues from a 2001 Koch CD with one new recording, the Wind Quintet. It might also be thought of as a collection of Schoenberg’s difficult music. The Second Chamber Symphony’s difficulties lie in defying expectations. Its marvelous, fascinating predecessor, which established the one-instrument-to-a-part chamber orchestra, is repudiated in form, scoring, and emotional tone. Schoenberg began the somber opening movement in 1906, immediately after completing the exuberant First Chamber Symphony; he worked on it as late as 1916 but was unable to complete it. He returned to it in 1939, by which time “my style has become much more profound.” Ironically, despite the three-decade lapse and the chamber scoring, the completed work is reminiscent of Gurrelieder , not only in its potent emotional content but even in its sound. The second movement, Con fuoco, rollicks along for about eight minutes and then shifts to a thoughtful, quiet epilogue that the composer originally intended as a separate finale. The piece shows no sign of Schoenberg’s theories or systems and could be mistaken for a late or post-Romantic tone poem. There have been successful recordings before—I particularly liked a 1970 live performance led by Bruno Maderna—but Craft outshines them all, turning what is often an unconvincing work into a thoroughly winning piece. One of his secrets is not to stretch out the slow sections; his 18:46 lops 10 percent off the timing of every other recording I have on hand (Boulez, Maderna, Mauceri). The strings do tend to cover the winds, due to poorly balanced, slightly muddy recorded sound from Abbey Road Studio One, July 2000.

The one-man opera (plus chamber chorus) Die glückliche Hand remains as much of an enigma as ever. Even Craft—who suggests The Hand of Fate as a title—can’t illuminate its amateurish self-analysis. The texts and detailed synopsis, printed in the original Koch issue, are replaced here by Craft’s comments, which in truth serve as well. Is this 1912–13 work misunderstood, or is it simply a failure? I’ll leave that decision to another century. Chorus (six men, six women) and orchestra perform well; the baritone has so little to sing—about a dozen lines of text—that one cannot evaluate his contributions. Recorded two months later at the same venue, the sound is fine.

The virtuosic, dodecaphonic Wind Quintet has been a bugaboo of instrumentalists and listeners since its first performance in 1924. Craft claims that early performances ran an hour, and that wind-players are only now able to perform it up to speed. Indeed, this one takes 38:21, whereas my favorite recording, made by members of the London Sinfonietta in 1974, runs 50:52. Speed is of course not everything: Tom Stoppard’s The (15 Minute) Dogg’s Troupe Hamlet does not mine the glories of Shakespeare, and I cringe at the thought of a half-hour “Eroica,” but Craft may be on target this time. The playing is superb, so I must devote a few extra hearings to accustom myself to the tempos. Craft also mentions that some earlier performances required a conductor (David Atherton in London), but he and Naxos leave us in the dark as to whether he was involved with this 2004 recording at New York’s Academy of Arts and Letters.

As always, Craft’s program notes are revealing, egotistical, and provocative: the Chamber Symphony’s Con fuoco “requires a much higher degree of instrumental virtuosity than any piece by Stravinsky.” Has Le sacre become so easy to play? Also: “the Schoenberg is incomparably more abundant in substance, emotional power, and compositional skill” than the middle movement of Stravinsky’s Ode . The Russian composer, who had something of an ego himself, will be awaiting Craft at the gates of whatever place they spend their eternities; their conversation may bring a rare smile to Schoenberg’s dour visage. Craft often claims that his performances are superior to any previous ones; this time he is right. Highly recommended!

FANFARE: James H. North

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8557526

  • UPC: 747313252626

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Arnold Schoenberg

  • Conductor: Robert Craft

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: New York Woodwind Quintet, Philharmonia Orchestra, Simon Joly Chorus

  • Performer: Carol Wincenc, Charles Neidich, Donald MacCourt, Mark Beesley, Stephen Taylor, William Purvis