SCHOENBERG / BERG / WEBERN: Piano Music (Peter Hill) (Naxos: 8.553870)
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Schoenberg was a largely self-taught composer;yet he became the most influential teacher of his time. Among his earliestpupils, from the autumn of 1904, were Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Both wouldremain close to their teacher long after their apprentice years were over, somuch so that the three are known collectively as the 'Second Viennese School'
Despite the nutorious revolutionary nature ofhis own music, as a teacher Schoenberg instilled a deep respect for tradition.
These apparently contradictory facets of Schoenberg's influence meet and fusein the Sonata (1908) which Bergwrote towards the end of his four years of study, and which must rank as musichistory's most extraordinary Op. 1. Berg seems to have intended the work as asort of graduation piece, as is apparent in the conscientious working out ofideas, or in the classical shape of its one-movement structure. Yet any senseof worthy student essay is swept aside in the titanic struggle between, on theone side, the new world, into which Schoenberg was moving, and the former tiesof key and tonality to which the Sonata just,but only just, remains anchored. A microcosm of Berg's vision is the very firstphrase, an angular rising motif or 'question', from which the music drifts,through a melodic sequence inflected by chromatic and wholetone harmonies, tofind its answer in B minor, the nominal key of the Sonata. These initial ideas pervade almost every bar, in alava-flow of inspiration, stemmed only by lyrical transitions of intensebeauty. The music's passionate search for resolution proves elusive, however,until at the very end, in a sublime coda, Bergquietly but emphatically sides with tradition.
For Schoenberg, as for many twentieth-centurycomposers, the piano was the medium for experiment, to which he turned at twokey points in his development One came around 1909 when with the pace of changein his music threatening to become overwhelming, Schoenberg completed a seriesof works of extreme radicalism, the song-cycle DasBuch der hiingenden Garten, the FivePieces for Orchestra, Op,16, andthe monodrama Erwartung. This achievementwas in spite of personal tragedy, the elopement of Schoenberg's wife, Mathilde,with his friend the painter Richard Gerstl, who subsequently committed suicide,and public incomprehension, as in the hostile reception in 1908 of the Second String Quartet, The Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11, dating fromFebruary and August 1909, are often cited as marking Schoenberg's decisivebreak with tonality. In the first we can now hear vestiges of the past in thecompressed, dramatic use of sonata form, or the rich Brahms-like chording; butthe music's intense inner purpose is the perpetual transformation of a tinymotif or 'cell', heard in the opening three notes, which in some guise,transposed, expanded, played 'vertically' (as harmony), is ever present. Thesecond piece is Schoenberg at his most speculative so fragmented, so hushed inits pianissimos, that the musicmight seem becalmed were it not for progress of the sombre two-note ostinato heard at the outset and finallywelling up in stark grandeur. The final piece breaks through all constraints oftraditional language or structure, cutting abruptly from extremes of eruptivepower, as in the massively congested opening, to the most intenseintrospection. Perhaps Schoenberg had in mind Kandinsky, with whom he had closecontacts, when he likened such music to developments in painting - withoutarchitecture... an ever-changing, unbroken succession of colours, rhythms andmoods.'
In the miniature world of Schoenberg's nextset, the Six Little Piano Piece,
Op.19, these forces come under microscopic scrutiny In the first, a capriciouspre-echo of Pierrot Lunaire, tiny fragments flicker,strut, and dissolve, reforming into an eloquent line which, however, at oncefreezes into silence. The central pieces explore opposites a mechanical tickingcrossed by a plunging melody, rich harmonies shadowed by pianissimo octaves, a jerky march savagelydismissed, an easy-going line troubled by an uneasy afterthought. The mostwithdrawn of the set is the last composed after Schoenberg had attendedMahler's funeral in May 1911, its bell-like chords disappearing in a scarcelyaudible whisper.
The silvery, weightless counterpoint of thefirst of the Five Piano Pieces,Op.23, opens a decisive newphase. This was the time (1921-3) when Schoenberg was evolving his twelve-notetechnique, a method of organizing his music around a central twelve-note row,or 'series'. The idea originated in the cell technique outlined earlier in thedescription of Op. 11, No. 1; andSchoenberg's rapid acceleration from manipulating small motifs towards a singleall-embracing cell, one which encompasses all twelve notes of the chromaticscale, can be charted as Op.23 unfolds,the set ending with the piece which is one of Schoenberg's first essays inserial technique (the very first being the Praludiumfrom the Suite,Op.25). From this distance in time the controversy over Schoenberg's methodseems, thankfully, less important than the musical ends which it served. Whatone can say with some certainty is that Schoenberg's new-found technicalconfidence is reflected in the balance and fluency of the group of pieces as awhole, enhanced by a tendency towards stylisation. This is especially clear inthe outer pieces, the first being a sort of three-part 'invention', the fifth alilting Waltz which dissolvesenigmatically in mysterious rustlings and tremblings. The most extended pieceis the third, built on the five notes heard in isolation at its opening. Thisembryonic series becomes a sort of cantusfirmus supporting intricate variations, and finally intertwiningwith itself in a gracefully balletic canon-by-inversion. The shorter second andfourth pieces contribute to the overall suggestion of symmetry being, ineffect, a pair of scherzi, theformer taut, compressed and explosive, its companion more whimsical, but stillwith an undercurrent of instability.
While the transitional Op.23 pieces are subtle and elusive, evenimpressionistic, in their piano writing, the Suite,Op.25 proclaims its new surenessof language and technique with sardonic glee. Any listener who anticipates fromits eighteenth-century dance titles some well-manicured essay in neo-classicismis in for a shock. The Praludium isno leisurely introduction but instead bristles with competing sources ofenergy. The Gavotte is similarlywaspish, set off by its dancing, spirited central section, a Musette, which teases the ear asSchoenberg distorts the traditional bagpipe 'drone' from a perfect fifth to a tritone - and, since these are thenotes (G to D flat) common to the two forms of the series used here bySchoenberg, all kinds of witty interplay ensue. Calm descends in the central Intermezzo, a spacious slow movement ofconsiderable intensity. The poise of the Menuett,however, seems only skin deep, especially in the light of its Trio, a brusque exercise in canonicpedantry. Consistent to the last in turning every expectation on its head, themusic of the famous Gigue is a tour-de-force of deception, a wild gallopstrewn with false downbeats, and rhythmic thickets, complicated by myriadintricacies of touch the whole making one of the twentieth century's supremely exhilarating(and ferociously taxing) pianistic obstacle courses.
If the marvellous Suite makes a natural climax to Schoenberg's music for