Webern: Vocal and Orchestral Works / Craft, Arnold, Booth, Et Al
WEBERN Ricercata from Bach’s “Musical Offering.” 5 2 Songs, op. 19. 4,6 5 Movements for String Orchestra. 6 2 Songs, op. 8. 1,5 5 Pieces for Orchestra, op. 10. 6 4 Songs, op. 13. 1,5 6 Songs, op. 14. 1,5 5 Sacred Songs, op. 15. 1,5 Das Augenlicht. 4,6 Variations for Orchestra. 5 Second Cantata 2,3,4,6 • Robert Craft, cond; Tony Arnold (sop); 1 Claire Booth (sop); 2 David Wilson-Johnson (bs); 3 Simon Joly Ch; 4 20th Century Classics Ens; 5 Philharmonia O 6 • NAXOS 8.557531 (79:32)
Craft was the first to record Webern’s “complete” works, back in the 1950s. His four- LP monaural Columbia album was a revelation—and a tribute to the commercial daring of Columbia’s Goddard Lieberson. Although there had been four or five earlier recordings of single Webern works, Craft’s set joined only one other Webern piece in the 1957 Schwann catalogs. It was to remain available for more than two decades, until succeeded by Boulez’s stereo remake in 1979, dubbed—at the last minute—Vol. 1 because a trove of previously unknown works had been discovered. While the stereo LPs were a great improvement, both for their sound quality and their performances, the latter were due to the singers and players more than to the conductor. Webern had gained respect—indeed, had become the guru of musical academia—and musicians were leaning how to perform his works. The learning curve continued well into the CD era; an appropriate punctuation being the 1992 appearance of a superb Webern disc by the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra (nla). Now everyone could play Webern (if not yet sing him), not just the avant-garde specialists. Listeners of my generation learned Webern from that first Craft set, and we are forever in his debt. If he could not then convince us of the music’s beauty, he drew our attention and piqued our interest.
The Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble is a group contracted for Craft’s recordings, its players handpicked by cellist Fred Sherry. Personnel listings for each piece show it to include the best of free-lance American musicians—I am almost afraid to name some, for fear of slighting equally superb colleagues: Charles Neidlich, William Purvis, Paul Neubauer, and Sherry are so well known that I don’t even need to list their instruments. Soprano Arnold, professor of voice at SUNY Buffalo, is a renowned new-music specialist; she sings Webern with glorious panache. These recordings were made during 2007 and 2008—the Philharmonia sessions at EMI’s Abbey Road Studio No. 1, the American ones at SUNY Purchase, New York, and at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City. The solo songs (at SUNY) are clean and clear, but the chorus (at Abbey Road) is set in a reverberant acoustic that denies us the exact words, even with libretto in hand. As usual with Naxos, librettos are posted on the Internet, but the texts of Das Augenlicht and of the Second Cantata are missing.
One of the pleasures of any Craft release is reading his feisty, superbly informed, damn-the-torpedoes program notes. As usual, he insists that these performances are the only correct ones: “[W]e can blame the failure to understand this piece [the op. 30 Variations] on the ignoring of Webern’s admonition to follow his metronomic markings. The present recording is the first attempt to play the work at metronomic speed. Thus, the DGG [Abbado? Boulez?] trudges along at about 116 for the fast pulsation, as against the required 160, and continues at nearly the same 116 for the slow beat.” In addition to his chutzpah, Craft is usually right. Despite that statement, Craft’s Webern performances are generally softer and more listener-friendly than either Abbado’s sophisticated, highly polished renditions or Boulez’s careful but often stolid performances. Although dubbed the BBC Singers, Boulez’s chorus is also directed by Simon Joly; with the Webern œuvre now doubled, Boulez’s DG recordings fill six CDs and are currently distributed only in a complete set. For the op. 30 Variations , however, I recommend the vibrant, superbly recorded performance by Jac van Steen on a surround-sound SACD, MDG 901 1425.
FANFARE: James H. North
Catalog Number: 8557531
Composer: Anton Webern
Conductor: Robert Craft
Orchestra/Ensemble: 20th Century Classics Ensemble, Philharmonia Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra members, Simon Joly Chorus
Performer: Claire Booth, David Wilson-Johnson, Tony Arnold