Thursday, 1 November 2012

Historically important recordings of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern from Audite

In his excellent notes to a new release of music by the Second Viennese School on Audite, Rüdiger Albrecht makes the point that even today, more than two generations after the death of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, there is, at best, an ambivalent attitude to their music from listeners.

I recently listened to Simon Rattle’s 1980 recording of Mahler’s Tenth symphony with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. To hear the breaking down of tonality in this work makes one wonder how music could have progressed without the Second Viennese School. It’s true that many composers merely bypassed these developments, often to great effect. What I certainly believe is that many of the great works being produced today, which combine the ideas of the atonalists with a new take on melody, would not exist without the Second Viennese School. Some of the music is tough and some unexpectedly attractive and, perhaps, it was an experimental period that music had to work its way through, but certainly the effects eventually bore fruit.

The new release from Audite brings together on four CDs works by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern in pioneering recordings by RIAS made between 1949 and 1965. In the post war era there were very few commercial recordings available of this music and it was the Editor of New Music at RIAS (Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor or Broadcasting in the American Sector), Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, that, with his colleague, Josef Rufer, made these recordings possible in order to give greater public awareness of the music of the Second Viennese School.

21.412 (4 CD)

These recordings feature many artists associated with the Second Viennese School.

Audite have gone back to the original master tapes of the broadcasts and undertaken re-mastering to produce these amazingly clear results.

CD1 commences with Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire Op.21 in an evocative performance directed by Josef Rufer, Schoenberg’s assistant in Berlin in the 1920’s, with the speaker, Irmen Burmester showing herself as an expressive artist, often producing the words in a way that the composer would have wished, just on the edge of song. Rufer brings out all the imagery; pathos, irony, humour and horror. The mono sound from the Kleistsaal, Berlin in 1949, is closely recorded (I had to turn my volume down considerably) but impressively clear.

There is an opportunity to hear the great conductor Ferenc Fricsay direct members of the RIAS Symphony Orchestra in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1 Op.9. This 1953 recording from the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, shows Fricsay’s ability to pull together the various strands of this work in a performance that brings great clarity to the music. The mono recording results in a fairly narrow sound stage but the ear soon adjusts.

The pianist, Peter Stadlen, studied Webern’s Op.27 Piano Variations with the composer as well as performing Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto publicly on a number of occasions. His live performance from the Titania-Palast, Berlin made in 1949, is a really dynamic affair, at times bringing out the work’s virtuoso elements, whilst the conductor, Winfried Zillig, who had master classes with Schoenberg, at times brings a chamber feel to the playing.

CD2 opens with Tibor Varga (violin) and another twelve tone composer, Ernst Krenek (piano) piano playing Schoenberg’s Fantasie for violin and piano Op.47 in a remarkably clear and detailed recording from the RIAS Funkhaus, Berlin in 1951. Both these artists were connected to the Second Viennese School circle and here give a brilliant performance.

There is a rare opportunity to hear the great soprano Suzanne Danco perform Schoenberg’s 15 Poems from ‘The Book of the Hanging Garden’ Op.15. This must be the gem of this set and, accompanied by Hermann Reutter (piano), she gives an unmatched performance of feeling, emotion and commitment.

Schoenberg’s setting of Psalm 130 features the RIAS Kammerchor who handle the complex writing superbly, in a recording made in Studio Lankwitz, Berlin in 1958, a recording of depth and clarity.

Eduard Steuermann, a composition student of Schoenberg, plays his teacher’s Drei Klavierstücke Op.11, Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke Op.19 and the Funf Klavierstücke Op.23 in clear recordings with excellent piano sound, made again at the Studio Lankwitz, Berlin in 1963. These are engrossing performances even in the Op.19, where Schoenberg abandons any development and reduces these tiny pieces to small gems, much in the way Webern went on to do. No. 6 of the Op.19 is said to have been conceived whilst Schoenberg attended Mahler’s funeral in 1912.

This disc is concluded with Schoenberg’s two small sets of Klavierstücke Op.33a and 33b with, this time Else C. Kraus (piano), a piano student of Schoenberg, playing with fine flow, tempo and phrasing. The recording made in 1951 at the RIAS Funkhaus, Berlin is clear but with slight emphasis on the lower frequencies.

CD3 starts with a strikingly clear recording of Schoenberg’s String Trio Op.45. Recorded at the RIAS Funkhaus, Berlin in 1957, Erich Röhn (violin), formerly Furtwangler s concertmaster at the Berlin Philharmonic, Ernst Doberitz (Viola) and Arthur Troester,(cello), who had also worked with Furtwangler, give a tremendous reading of great passion and fire.

A live recording from the Titania-Palast, Berlin in 1949, features the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Ferenc Fricsay conducting Schoenberg’s Suite in G major for String Orchestra (1934). The recording may be a little husky at certain points but this rare opportunity to hear Fricsay with this orchestra playing this work is irresistible. The conductor moulds this work to give it a pretty romantic feel, almost bringing it into the realm of other great pieces for string orchestra. There is a particularly light and joyful finale.

Alban Berg features next with his Lyric Suite for String Quartet (1925/26) played by the legendary Végh Quartet in a recording from 1963. This is a wonderful performance providing just the right amount of mystery and fantasy for this work. The recording, made in the Studio Lankwitz, Berlin, is remarkably good.

Heinrich Geuser (clarinet) and Klaus Billing ( piano) recorded Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and piano in the RIAS Funkhaus, Berlin in 1953. This is sensitively played with a particularly beautiful sehr langsam second movement.

CD4 In Berg’s Seven Early Songs (1905-1908) the Hungarian soprano Magda László has a vulnerability in her voice that suits these songs well. Perhaps at some points she is rather strained (such as in the high notes of Traumgekrönt) but she sings with feeling and is sensitively accompanied by Lother Broddack (piano). The recording made in 1958 at Studio 7 of the RIAS Funkhaus, Berlin is excellent, full of space and detail.

Berg’s Schließe mir die Augen beide (1907 and 1925) are performed by the American soprano, Evelyn Lear, who only died this year aged 86, and Hans Hilsdorf (piano) receive lovely performances in a recording from 1960 made at the same venue of RIAS in Berlin. Lear had gone to Germany in 1957 on a Fulbright fellowship which enabled her to study at the Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin. In 1959 she became a member of the Berlin Opera Company. The recording is slightly strident at times but otherwise fine and clear.

The German conductor, Artur Rother, who succeeded Bruno Walter at the Deutsche Oper Berlin before the war, conducts the Radio Symphony Orchestra, Berlin in a 1965 recording from the Studio Lankwitz, Berlin of Anton Webern’s Passacaglia for Orchestra Op.1. This is a fine performance; full of atmosphere and feeling with a recording that, though slightly recessed, is amazingly clear and detailed.

Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra Op. 10 shows just how far the composer had moved in such a short space of time, as does his Vier Stucke for Violin and Piano Op.7. that follows. Here we have small fragmentary sounds that do not progress beyond their original ideas. The recording made in 1961 at the Studio Lankwitz, provides a rare opportunity to hear the Italian composer Bruno Maderna conducting the Radio Symphony Orchestra, Berlin in a performance of scrupulous care for every detail of this fascinating work.

Webern’s Vier Stucke for Violin and Piano Op.7 is performed in a 1958 recording from Studio 7 of the RIAS Funkhaus by the Hungarian André Gertler (violin) and Diane Anderson (piano) in a wonderful recording of this finely crafted work.

There are arrangements by Schoenberg and Webern of two Waltzes by Johann Strauss II for the odd combination of String Quartet, Harmonium and piano recorded in 1950 by the Bastiaan Quartet with Emil Hammermeister (Harmonium) and Klaus Billing (piano). Though I detected some slight noise on the Webern transcription these mono recordings are nevertheless quite good. They sound very much of their period but are fun to hear.

The final work on disc 4 is Schoenberg’s Fantasie for Violin and Piano Op.47 with clear 1953 sound in spontaneous live performances, from the Studio 7 at the RIAS Funkhaus, by Rudolf Kolisch (violin), who with the Kolisch Quartet had works written for them by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, and Alan Willman (piano). Such is the clarity that one can hear a vocal contribution presumably from the pianist.

This new issue, as well as being of great historical interest, has some fine performances. The engineers have done a remarkable job in re-mastering the old master tapes and the mono sound is always acceptable and in many cases excellent.

The notes are first rate as well, with much information about the Second Viennese School particularly after World War II, the interpretation of the music, and information about the artists, as well as full texts and translations.

Anyone interested in the music of the Second Viennese School will want this new release as will those who are interested in the music being broadcast in post war Berlin.

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