WEBERN: Passacaglia / Symphony / Five Pieces (Takuo Yuasa/ Tim Handley/ Ulster Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.554841)
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Anton Webern (1883-1945)
Anton Webern was born in Vienna on 3rd December 1883. His first compositions date from before the turn of the century, with early pieces that are competent exercises in mid-Romanticism, as in the 1904 idyll Im Sommerwind (In the Summer Wind). In 1904 he began an intensive period of study with Arnold Schoenberg, who was then working towards an expansion of the tonal boundaries of Western art music. After formal tuition ended in 1908, Schoenberg continued to act as a mentor and advisor to Webern until he left Germany in 1933. Between 1908 and 1920, apart from a brief period of war service, Webern took up, and often quickly abandoned, conducting posts throughout the Austro-German territories, while writing a sequence of works, the temporal proportions of which were increasingly compressed. In 1920 he settled at Mödling, near Vienna, where he earned a living through choral conducting and private teaching. There were also conducting engagements abroad, notably with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, though Weberns painstaking and ascetic manner found little favour. Nevertheless, with the support of his publisher Universal Edition, he composed steadily through to the early 1940s, though the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938 left him with little means of support and no public performances. In Mittersill, near Salzburg, with his wife at the end of World War Two, he was preparing to return to Vienna when, on 15th September, he was shot and killed by an American soldier in a tragic case of mistaken identity.
With fellow-members of the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg and Berg, Webern was a great believer in innovation within the Western musical tradition. This reflected itself, in his case, in particular emphasis on the polyphonic composers of the Renaissance and early Baroque (he was awarded a doctorate in 1906 for his study of Heinrich Isaac). In the words of his pupil, the British composer Humphrey Searle, "Webern was an idealist, completely dedicated to his conception of music, which he regarded as a phenomenon of Nature rather than Art: he was always aiming to find the natural laws which music must follow".
The Passacaglia, Opus 1, was written in 1908, towards the end of Weberns four-year period of formal composition lessons with Schoenberg. A set of variations on a ground bass, the passacaglia is among the strictest of classical forms, and one in which Weberns inclination towards contrapuntal writing, the combination of individual musical lines, is fully engaged. The eight-bar theme, announced by plucked strings, contains one note foreign to the key of D minor, which enables Webern to pursue the chromatically extended approach to tonality that Schoenberg had been pursuing in his most recent works. That said, the strict, often austere logic of the piece recalls Brahms, notably the Bachian passacaglia which concludes his Fourth Symphony. Indeed, Weberns Passacaglia connects with the dynamism of sonata-form in that the first and second variations immediately introduce counter-melodies, while the twelfth variation turns to D major and a more relaxed second subject group. The sixteenth variation begins a stormy development section, then the twentieth variation initiates a climactic reprise. The final variation is an extended coda, leading the music back to the subdued mood of the beginning.
1909 was a pivotal year for Webern. In his Opus 3 and Opus 4 songs he took the decisive step into a freely chromatic, or atonal language. The Five Movements, Opus 5, written for string quartet and arranged for string orchestra in 1929, transfer this thinking into the instrumental sphere. The robust first movement adopts sonata form, albeit highly compressed, for almost the last time in Weberns career. The second movement has a rapt nocturnal aura, solo viola and cello prominent against muted strings. The third movement is a swift and dramatic ternary-form structure, making the contrast with the fourth movements ghostly rhythmic patterns all the more telling. The fifth movement opens in the bass, and though the textures are initially fuller, the music soon dissipates in insubstantial ostinati. The climax itself is fleeting, and the final bars withdraw into the shadows.
The Six Pieces, Opus 6, also from 1909, further this compression, though the original version employs an orchestra of Mahlerian dimensions, which Webern was to scale down considerably in his revision of 1928, as heard here. Even then, the sense of chamber-music textures is predominant, not least in the first piece, framed by poetic flute and horn solos, and arching towards expressive string music at the centre. The second piece begins with fragmentary gestures on woodwind and brass, before erupting in a climax of shrill wind, percussion and strings that intimates a sudden catastrophe. The third piece opens plaintively on solo viola, but a pentatonic figure on flute and a cascading celesta pattern are the only other definable events in this eleven-bar miniature. In contrast, the fourth piece is a glowering funeral march that proceeds from the resonance of tam-tam and gongs, through isolated wind gestures and a blanched clarinet melody, to subdued flute and muted trumpet solos, before brass and percussion build unremittingly to a climax of shattering power and anguish. The fifth piece opens as a numbed aftermath, brass and strings groping uncertainly, before wind and harp open up the texture. A haunting ostinato complex for muted trumpet, celesta and glockenspiel leads to the closing bars of elegiac remembrance. The sixth piece forms an epilogue, the cor anglais initiating an ensemble dialogue which sets the earlier pieces in a more objective perspective. A rocking motion on celesta and harp acts as a final benediction.
The period 1910-13 was spent refining this new musical language in a series of pieces the durations of which are as brief as their gestures are flawlessly realised in sound. From some eighteen pieces for chamber orchestra, Webern selected five to be published as his Opus 10. The first piece is a magical sequence of pointillist gestures for individual instruments. The second piece achieves a greater dynamic profile, with a startling climax capped by trumpet and horn. The third piece opens with an otherworldly ostinato on harp and mandolin which, after a ruminative central interlude, continues in even more ghostly timbres before dissolving into a muted side-drum roll. The fourth piece, just six bars long, gives the mandolin almost the prominence of a soloist, before a sighing violin gesture. A descending celesta phrase opens the fifth piece, which moves precipitously to a brief, percussive climax, then gaining a measure of repose before the capricious final notes.
The fifteen years before the Symphony, Opus 21, were dominated by the composition of songs, and the adoption of Schoenbergs twelve-note method of composition. Compared to the sets of individual pieces, the Symphony is more sustained both in time and texture, achieved through a refined process of canonic imitation, one independent musical line following and overlapping with another. This allows a definable musical argument to emerge. The first movement divides into two parts, essentially statement and development, each repeated. Here the theme heard on the horn is subjected to a discreet though increasingly elaborate process of imitation across the orchestra. The more volatile second movement consists of a theme, seven variations and coda, each of which is a palindrome, working backwards from its central point in a symmetrical mirror image. Throughout, the limpid sense of flow, timbre and colour of the music make for intriguing and pleasurable listening.