Schoenberg: String Trio, Four Pieces For Mixed Chorus / Craft, London Sinfonietta

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SCHOENBERG String Trio, op. 45 1,2,3. 4 Pieces for Mixed Chorus, op. 27 5. 3 Satires for Mixed Chorus, op. 28 5. Septet-Suite, op. 29 1,3,4. Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, op. 34 6 1 Rolf Schulte (vn); 2 Richard O’Neill (va); 3 Fred Sherry (vc); 4 Christopher Oldfather (pn); 4 Charles Neidich, Alan R. Kay (cl); 4 Michael Lowenstern (bs cl); 4 Toby Appel (va); 5 Simon Joly Chorale; Robert Craft, cond; 5 London Sinfonietta; 6 London SO NAXOS 8557529 (79:12)

Robert Craft’s extensive new series of Schoenberg recordings continues apace with this release, Vol. 11 (for those who are keeping score at home). As indicated in my earlier review of his new version of Pelleas et Mélisande, this new series has far lusher, more reverberant sound than his earlier Columbia recordings, which obscures some detail even though it retains some of the old fire. I was very curious to hear this disc, however, as it contains works he did not previously record and indicates that his oeuvre will now include chamber pieces that don’t necessarily need a conductor, even though he is listed as such on the CD box and booklet.

Sixty years after his death, Schoenberg remains an acquired taste—to some, a taste they’d rather not acquire at all. The problem is not, and never was, that his music is completely inaccessible but that the rigorous rules of 12-tone music make it more of a mind game than an expressive device. Craft and the chamber musicians involved in the present release try to overcome this obstacle by infusing their performances with a goodly amount of real emotion. Despite their good intentions, however, the String Trio strikes me as overly busy and consistently neurotic. Atypical of Schoenberg, he published the trio with a detailed chart, measure by measure, of the form of the piece. Well, any music that needs that much explanation, even to the performers, isn’t going to do much to communicate to any but the most dedicated atonal buff.

On the other hand, the Four Pieces and Three Satires for mixed chorus are—for atonal music—quite a bit of fun to listen to. Here, Schoenberg breaks up the rhythmic patterns and, especially in the Four Pieces, produces some exceptionally fine choral writing. Most whimsical of all is the third Satire, “Der neue Klassizismus,” which keeps seesawing back and forth between 4/4 and 3/4, and even within the 3/4 time, fractions the beats to keep the listener off-balance. I loved it!

Also very playful, despite its density, is the Septet-Suite, which is very close in spirit and feeling to the Serenade (one of my personal favorite of all Schoenberg works, and to this day one of his most popular pieces). One thing that really makes this piece work, for me, is the sound quality. By switching recording venues to Master Sound Astoria Studios in New York, we are treated to absolutely superb sonics for such a chamber work, clear as a bell with only a bit of natural resonance. Would that the entire series was recorded this way. I’m not sure if Schoenberg indicated that the piano be somewhat recessed in volume, or if this was a decision by Craft or the musicians, but it works beautifully, making the instrument sound more like a xylophone in the way it fits into the musical texture. As the piano is pushed a bit back from the microphone, the bass clarinet is brought forward, and this, too, imparts a richness of balance to the sound texture that I find particularly warm and rewarding.

But Craft, and Naxos, save the best piece for last. Despite the over-reverberant, almost goopy ambience, Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene is an absolute masterpiece that morphs and grows and moves with a real Viennese rhythmic lilt despite its dense scoring and atonal structure. Craft explains the reason: The earlier of the nine episodes are written in somewhat slower tempos that build gradually toward the ninth and last, “Catastrophe.” I would, however, also give a large amount of credit for the work’s success to Craft’s wonderful sense of proportion and the way he builds and releases tension.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8557529

  • UPC: 747313252923

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Arnold Schoenberg

  • Conductor: Robert Craft

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: London Sinfonietta members, London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Joly Chorus

  • Performer: Alan R. Kay, Charles Neidich, Christopher Oldfather, Fred Sherry, Michael Lowenstern, Richard O'Neill, Rolf Schulte, Toby Appel