The RIAS Second Viennese School Project

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SCHOENBERG Pierrot Lunaire. 1 Chamber Symphony No. 1. 2 Piano Concerto 3. Fantasy for Violin and Piano 4. The Book of the Hanging Gardens. 5 Psalm 130, De Profundius. 6 3 Piano Pieces, Op. 11 7. 6 Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19 8. 5 Pieces, Op. 23 9. 2 Pieces, Opp. 33a, 33b 10. String Trio, Op. 45 11. Suite in G for String Orchestra: Movements 1, 2, 4 12. BERG Lyric Suite. 13 4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 5 14. 7 Early Songs 15. Schliesse mir die Augen beide 16. WEBERN Passacaglia, Op. 1. 17 5 Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10 18. 4 Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7 19 & Suzanne Danco (sop); 5 Magda László (sop); 15 Evelyn Lear (sop); 16 Irmen Burmester (sprechstimme); 1 Hans Bastiaan (vn); 1 André Gertler (vn); 19 Rudolf Kolisch (vn); 4 Erich Röhn (vn); 11 Tibor Varga (vn); 4 Ernst Doberitz (va); 11 Walter Müller (va); 1 Werner Haupt (vc); 1 Arthur Troester (vc); 11 Hans Peter Schmitz (fl); 1 Alfred Bürkner (cl); 1 Heinrich Geuser (cl); 14 Diane Andersen (pn); 19 Klaus Billing (pn); 1,14,20,21 Lothar Broddack (pn); 15 Hans Hilsdorf (pn); 16 Else C. Kraus (pn); 10 Ernst Krenek (pn); 4 Hermann Reutter (pn); 5 Peter Stadlen (pn); 3 Eduard Steuermann (pn); 7-9 Alan Willman (pn); 4 Emil Hammermeister (hrm); 20,21 Végh Quartet; 13 Bastiaan Quartet; 20,21 Günther Arndt, cond; 6 Ferenc Fricsay, cond; 2,12 Bruno Maderna, cond; 18 Arthur Rother, cond; 17 Josef Rufer, cond; 1 Winfried Zillig, cond; 3 RIAS CCh; 6 RIAS SO; 2,3 Berlin RSO; 17,18 Berlin PO 12 AUDITE 21.412, mono (4 CDs: 299:54 Text and Translation) Live: Berlin 3 2/6/1949; 12 11/28/1949; 4 8/28/1953 (Kolisch)

& J. STRAUSS II 20 Roses from the South (arr. Schoenberg). 21 The Gypsy Baron: Treasure Waltz (arr. Webern)

Having been banned as “degenerate” during the Third Reich, by the end of World War II the experimental work of what is now called the Second Viennese School was, at best, on the fringes of German public perception. The three composers who made up the school as such were dead (Berg in 1935 and Webern in 1945) or self-exiled to the U.S. (Schoenberg). There were few performances of their work in postwar Europe and even fewer commercial recordings. So Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, the editor of new music at the RIAS in occupied West Berlin, and Schoenberg’s conductor-colleague Josef Rufer, sought out musicians—many from the composers’ circle of students and friends—to record and broadcast some of the most important works of these three pivotal modernists. This was more than an act of national contrition for Stuckenschmidt and Rufer. They intended to revive the performing traditions that had been developing in Berlin in the 1920s and ’30s, and cultivate a new generation of performers. They hoped, as well, to create more interest in the listening public through greater familiarity.

Audite’s four-disc The RIAS Second Viennese School Project presents a selection of these RIAS performances recorded between 1949 and 1965. The pieces, written between 1906 and 1950, provide an overview of the arc of the school’s development from the quartal harmonies of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, to the stricter 12-tone serial techniques of works like the Two Piano Pieces, op. 33a & b, to the still dodecaphonic but increasingly personal works like his Piano Concerto and String Trio. While these works are often collectively written off as austere and unapproachable, the reality revealed here is rather different. Though the uninitiated will still find some of the going rough—there are works by these composers that are still cutting-edge these many decades later—this compilation persuasively argues that wholesale dismissal of the oeuvre of these composers is intellectual laziness. Most of the music here is not all that taxing to ears attuned to music of the last century.

Perhaps the problem in perception is one of interpretive tradition. Performers have tended to fall into two camps: those who take a coolly objective approach, and those—most often not of the composers’ close circle—who treat these pieces as they would any romantic work. This is most tellingly illustrated by the inclusion of two performances of the Fantasy for Violin and Piano , op. 47; one by objectivist Schoenberg disciple (and brother-in-law) Rudolf Kolisch and the other by famed Hungarian violinist Tibor Varga. Prewar, Schoenberg reputedly demanded adherence to the letter of the score, and often seemed to enjoy his reputation for inflexibility and aloof intellectualism. But later, the composer praised a recording of Varga’s more spontaneous take on his violin concerto, concluding that, “I wish to be younger to be able to write more music for you.” It is not hard to imagine that this more subjective interpretation of the Fantasy might have similarly earned the composer’s approval. Release annotator Wolfgang Rathert quotes Schoenberg’s concerns regarding Kolisch’s quest for executional perfection, and Schoenberg/Berg scholar Rudolf Stephan, interviewed for the program notes, states that Vargas distinguished himself in this repertoire “because he approached the piece[s] as a musician.” It takes only a measure of heart to reveal the Mahlerian late-romanticism in many of Schoenberg’s scores, and it is perhaps the lack of this heart in many performances that has stood in the way of acceptance. Indeed, this question of effective interpretation of the works of Schoenberg in particular is central to this release, and is explored at some length in Rathert’s illuminating essay and in the interview.

Schoenberg’s students Berg and Webern are represented as well, though by less than an hour of the former and barely 20 minutes of the latter. Berg’s works have always presented fewer problems to listeners. He has been accepted where Schoenberg has not in part because he wears his romantic inclinations on his sleeve and is never as unbending in his application of serial techniques. Webern was a keener serialist than even his mentor after 1925, but he is represented here by works that predate his adoption of Schoenberg’s more radical innovations.

So, is this then the ideal place for the serious listener wishing to come to terms with the Second Viennese School to begin? Certainly, as a broad sampling in several genres of historical performances of the composers’ compositions, this is quite attractive. The vocal works in particular are represented by outstanding performances. Suzanne Danco’s 1955 recording of Schoenberg’s The Book of the Hanging Gardens has been equaled only by Jan DeGaetani’s more detailed but less opulent reading. Irmen Burmester narrates a strikingly accurate Pierrot lunaire —more so than Schoenberg’s 1940 Columbia recording—which, led by Rufer, is alive to all the paradoxes of the work—art high and low—and the vivid imagery of the text. Evelyn Lear gives flawless performances of Berg’s contrasting settings of Theodor Storm’s Schliesse Mir die Augen Beide , while Hungarian soprano Magda László offers the same composer’s 7 Early Songs with less technical perfection but enormous sensitivity and beauty. The RIAS Chamber Chorus sings a fearless account of the harrowing and technically daunting De Profundis, op. 50b, though later performances—Accentus on Naïve comes to mind—have found more beauty in the severity.

Highlighting the fine chamber work performances included are a warmhearted and ultimately haunting performance of Berg’s Lyric Suite by the Vegh Quartet and an aptly neurotic performance of Schoenberg’s heart-attack-inspired String Trio, op. 45 by Erich Röhn and two other veterans of Furtwängler’s Berlin Philharmonic. Hungarian violinist André Gertler finds real warmth in Webern’s 4 Pieces for Violin and Piano, op.7, and Heinrich Geuser plays the 4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano with uncommon tenderness. The two Strauss transcriptions are as charmingly done as those of the Boston Chamber Players (DG): high praise indeed.

I am less convinced, however, that Eduard Steuermann is an ideal guide for the piano works (but see contra Fanfare 34:4) though given his scrupulous approach, the playing is irreproachable. Peter Hill (Naxos) brings more color, Viennese grace, and a romantic sensibility, and the charismatic Mitsuko Uchida (Philips) offers a wonderful sense of mystery and atmosphere. Uchida brings similar qualities to the piano concerto, where she and Pierre Boulez find more of Schoenberg’s war-weariness than Peter Stadlen does. Ultimately though, it is the limitations of Stadlen’s 1949 live recording, with recessed orchestra and the insecurity of the RIAS ensemble at that time, which undermines his as a model. Still, other than a loving but wrong-headed performance of three movements of Schoenberg’s Suite for String Orchestra by the usually perceptive Ferenc Fricsay, the orchestral works fare well in this series. Fricsay redeems himself with a strong performance of the Chamber Symphony No. 1. There is, as well, a Webern Passacaglia, op. 1, conducted by Arthur Rother which emphasizes its Brahmsian longing, and a polished gem of a reading of his Five Pieces, op. 10, led by conductor/dodecaphonic composer Bruno Maderna.

All recordings are monaural, though generally clean and transparent with the slight edginess on the top typical of RIAS master-tape releases from this source. Some of the older tapes show signs of deterioration, but they have been repaired expertly. The earliest recordings exhibit the extreme highlighting of the soloists that was common radio practice then, but this is really only to the detriment of the Schoenberg concerto. The supporting material is brilliantly done, with the aforementioned essay and interview, plus notes on the interpreters and recordings, full recording data, and all sung texts. Collectors who already admire these works will certainly want this set for its historical significance. In the end though, I must answer my question regarding the neophyte more equivocally. Those with a musicological bent will certainly find this set fascinating. Those wishing an inexpensive introduction to the music may wish to start with the superb Robert Craft recordings of Schoenberg and Webern on Naxos in modern sound. In the end, though, this is an essential purchase on many levels and, if I haven’t made it clear already, an addition to the discography of the Second Viennese School of immense value.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: AUD21412

  • UPC: 4022143214126

  • Label: Audite

  • Composer: Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg, Johann Strauss Jr.

  • Conductor: Arthur Rother, Bruno Maderna, Ferenc Fricsay, Günther Arndt, Josef Rufer, Winfried Zillig

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Bastiaan String Quartet, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Berlin RIAS Chamber Chorus, Berlin RIAS Symphony Orchestra, Végh String Quartet

  • Performer: Alan Willman, André Gertler, Arthur Troester, Diane Andersen, Eduard Steuermann, Else C. Kraus, Emil Hammermeister, Erich Röhn, Ernst Doberitz, Ernst Krenek, Evelyn Lear, Hans Bastiaan, Hans Hilsdorf, Hans-Peter Schmitz, Heinrich Geuser, Hermann Reutter, Irmen Burmester, Klaus Billing, Lothar Broddack, Magda László, Peter Stadlen, Rudolf Kolisch, Suzanne Danco, Tibor Varga, Werner Haupt