Monday, 16 September 2019

Musikfest Berlin (10) - Zimmermann/Les Siècles/Roth: Rameau, Lachenmann, and Berlioz, 15 September 2019


Rameau: Les Indes Galantes: Suite
Lachenmann: Mouvement (– vor der Erstarrung)
Berlioz: Harold en Italie, op.16

Tabea Zimmermann (viola)
Les Siècles
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

Images: © Monika Karczmarczyk

Charles Ives’s father famously insisted that his son stretch his ears. It was partly in that spirit that I went to this concert from the French period-instrument orchestra, Les Siècles, and its founder, François-Xavier Roth. Hand on heart, I remain a sceptic, though certainly not an opponent, when it comes to period instruments. I reacted very strongly against them, or rather against the underlying ideologies of those preaching their use, when coming of musical age. No one was successfully going to tell this teenager that he could not play Bach – or Handel, or Rameau, or Byrd… – on the piano; no one likewise was going to create anything other than an enemy by telling him the Bach of Klemperer or Furtwängler or, God help us, even Karl Richter was ‘incorrect’, or as Gustav Leonhardt put it in the case of Furtwängler, ‘disgusting’. (To be fair, ‘disgusting’ at least shows some emotional engagement; the idea of a performance being ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ is considerably worse.) However, not everyone is like that, especially today; many ‘period’ musicians indeed never were. Partly through curiosity, partly through friendship with many musicians with varying degrees of commitment to such music-making, and partly through re-examination of my own prejudices and that imperative to stretch my ears, I have latterly shown greater interest and sympathy.

When it comes, say, to seventeenth-century music, I frankly have little choice, if I ever want to hear that music performed live. With the eighteenth-century, opportunities to hear its music on modern instruments vary according to repertoire and instrument: pianists are clearly never going to give up Bach, yet how often do we hear a symphony or even chamber orchestra perform a Handel oratorio that is not Messiah, let alone a Rameau opera? The nineteenth century is another matter again; I have never felt any particular need here, but curiosity led me here to give Berlioz on instruments of the period. So too did the ethos of the orchestra in question: that is, playing each piece, as close as possible, on the instruments of its time, thus affording a contrast between instruments of the mid-eighteenth, mid-nineteenth, and the late twentieth centuries. So too did the programme – how often, if ever, have Rameau, Lachenmann, and Berlioz appeared together like this? – and the conductor, whose work I have long admired. Why mention all of this? I hope that is not simply self-absorption, but also to try to explain what will perhaps be an unusually personal response. My aim is certainly not to dissuade musicians from performing and listeners from listening to Berlioz on period instruments – why on earth should I wish to do that? – but to describe and also to reflect a little on my experience. By all means call me an antediluvian, if it helps – whilst also acknowledging the ‘historicist’ irony that may entail.

First, however, Rameau, and a suite from Les Indes galantes (instruments of 1750, A=415 Hz). As it happens, I had actually heard another suite from the same opera on modern instruments (LSO/Rattle) earlier this year. I had also, once before, heard Roth conduct Rameau dances, albeit from Dardanus, with a modern orchestra (the BBC NOW), at the Proms. If my prejudices may lie in that direction, I am not at all sure that this was not the best performance of the three. It certainly left me in no doubt that I was happy to listen to this music on instruments of any period, which would doubtless have surprised my younger self. Roth and his players, mostly standing with obvious exceptions, offered an introduction, the ‘Entrée de la suite d’Hébée’, as enticing and in its way as fantastical as anything in Berlioz: an array of percussion, responded to by light, lithe, yet far from inexpressive or indeed vibrato-less playing. It set an infectious precedent, to which subsequent dances fully lived up. Two rigaudons (‘pour les Matelots provençaux et Matelotes provençales’) each offered expressive lilt and meaningful contrast, both with what had come and with each other. Here and in the pair of tambourins (also for those Provencal sailors) one could pretty much see the dancers in one’s mind’s eyes, fully alert to the dramatic possibilities of the dance’s intensification on repetition (and dynamic variation). Two numbers in common with Rattle’s selection, music for the ‘savages’ and the great chaconne, brought the suite to a memorable conclusion, the latter’s sequential sense of drama firmly founded in rhythm and harmony. Indeed, it was Raymond Leppard, rather than any period-instrument conductor, who came to mind for me. Not that these instruments lacked their own character and colour, in many respects delightful, but those were not ends in themselves.

Lachenmann’s Mouvement ( – vor der Erstarrung) for ensemble dates from almost two-and-a-half centuries after Rameau’s opera (1982-4, as opposed to 1735). It was played on modern instruments, or, as the programme had it, ‘instruments from the year 1980’, tuning at A=442. This was at least as committed a performance, not only revealing something akin to a sonic palimpsest, but also revelling in the drama of effort in music-making, as well as its reward, by players truly in sovereign command of their instruments. Webern and Nono, as in the Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied heard that morning, were present guests at the feast, yet in no sense could any of the music have been said to sound like theirs; rather, their methods, or memories thereof, helped us – or at least me – find a way in. Extreme ‘expressivity’ – I am not sure that that is quite the right word – of twin precision and intensity bade, even insisted, that one listen, and listen with ears both old and new: an idea not without implications for such an orchestra and such a programme. I could even have sworn I heard a Rameau rhythm echoed at one point: a coincidence at best, yet a pleasing one. Lachenmann’s music was played with all the skill and understanding of a dedicated new music ensemble, but does this music, the best of forty years all, still qualify as ‘new music’? Does it matter? Eruptions as powerful as those in Mahler (or Webern), whispered confidences as hyper-expressive as those of Nono, riots of wind and percussion to rival Messiaen’s: those and many other aspects, moments, of death, yet also surely in some sense of life, offered a world-kaleidoscope different from Rameau’s, yet one which could surely be heard with profit in succession to it. A performance exhilarating in its aggression had me ask whether my ears would ever be quite the same again, and why on earth I should wish them to be.

Finally, then, Berlioz, and Harold en Italie (instruments from 1850, A=438), for which the orchestra was joined by Tabea Zimmermann. I learned much from the performance, yet emerged from it less convinced. That may simply, or principally, be more a matter of my resistance; perhaps I was hearing it not dissimilarly from the way some notably dissatisfied members of the audience appeared to have heard Lachenmann. Perhaps that was no bad thing at all. Certainly the darker, less resonant string tone with which the first movement opened, had its own potentialities. It was woodwind blend, or lack thereof, both within the section and with the strings, that troubled me more. That will doubtless have been part of the attraction for many, but I found it had me listen more to the instruments, less to what they played. On her entry, Zimmermann proved unfussy yet expressive; so too was the harpist with whom she duetted. (The idea of placing the harp at the front of the stage, almost as a second soloist, offered a definite advantage here.) As time went on, though, Zimmermann proved surprisingly wayward, not just of mood, but of tuning, a problem far from restricted to this movement. Roth’s basic tempo was faster than usual, but it worked well, and was far from inflexible. If a relative thinness of orchestral tone contrasted greatly with Roméo et Juliette from the Berlin Philharmonic just two nights previously, stretching my ears was always intended as part of the exercise.

For the second movement, I was gain struck by the difference in balance and blend. The mood was very different, too, from any performance I could recall: less solemn, more a motley crew of pilgrims. Why not? Again, it made me listen, and there was something quite Catholic, even if renegade Catholic, to the conception, which fitted well. The mountaineer serenading his beloved in the third movement benefited from splendidly rustic sound, period woodwind here coming into its own (for me, at any rate), in what proved another swift account. There was plenty of nervous energy to the finale, whose darker colours and moods came off best, Roth handling its many twists and turns with typical skill and conviction. There were some pretty wild sounds, all in all: many will have found them exciting; alas, they soon became rather wearing for me. I suspect they would have done so still more on repetition. As an encore, the ‘Marche hongroise’ from La Damnation de Faust proved infinitely more colourful and involving than it had during a dreary trudge on modern instruments through the entire work at Glyndebourne this summer with Robin Ticciati. Swings and roundabouts, then; I had at any rate stretched my ears and been made to think.

Five hundred recordings

In June of last year, I received on Facebook a challenge to list ten recordings, or as the instructions put it, ‘favo[u]rite albums’. ‘What really made an impact,’ the rubric continued, ‘and is still on your rotation list [?? whatever that may have been: I never did find out], even if only now and then? Post the cover, no need to explain. Nominate a person each day to do the same.’ Often I ignore such ‘challenges’, but in this case I accepted, not least on account of the friend who had issued this particular call to action. I posted an ‘album’ cover each day, then decided to continue to twenty, then to fifty, and so on. I had firmly resolve to stop at 100, then 200, then 366 (one for each day of a well-endowed year), before finally, this month, deciding to quit whilst ahead at 500. Initially, I avoided any replication of works, then slightly relaxed that, thinking it perverse to exclude a recording simply because it included a different performance of three minutes of music, then there were seventy-odd unrepresented elsewhere. After 366, I permitted myself a little more repetition, selecting some second recordings of ‘central’ repertoire works that meant a great deal to me, whilst continuing to present many more works for the first time. Having drawn to a close, I decided to share the covers with a wider world, for anyone who might be interested.

What I should like to say before doing so is that the selection is necessarily restricted. First, and most obviously, it is restricted to recordings that I own. However good some alternative may be, if I do not, for whatever reason, it will not even have been considered for inclusion. The selection is also weighted very strongly towards a time when, before attending more live performances, I acquired recordings far more regularly than I do now: mostly of ‘historical’ repertoire. There are some more recently issued recordings, but not so many. It is also necessarily restricted to works that have been recorded, and to artists who have recorded particular works. Much music that interests me, especially new music, is not present at all. Likewise, there are culpably few recordings of music by women composers; that, I am afraid, is a reflection of the CDs I own, though not a reflection of what interests me in live performance, something nowadays considerably more important to me. The absence of other musical traditions is similarly not intended as a comment upon them. Put simply, I mean no harm with this, and hope to Mozart that it will not offend anyone. I shied away from large boxed sets, since that rather seemed to defeat the point; a recording of the Ring is one thing, a set of 50 different Klemperer recordings another. They are also all audio-only recordings: no videos. This is not a list of ‘500 greatest recordings’, or some such nonsense; it is not a guide of recommended recordings of particular work; it is simply a selection that grew over time, of recordings meaning something to me, which attempts not to overlap too often. I hope that it may prove of some interest to some people; if not, other websites are available...

(It also appears that the number may not be precisely 500. I am not at all sure how that happened, but never mind: it is certainly c.500. Too much precision can be a deadly thing.)

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Musikfest Berlin (9) – JACK Quartet/Junge Deutsche Philharmonie/Nott: Lachenmann and Strauss, 15 September 2019


Lachenmann: Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben

Christopher Otto, Austin Wulliman (violins)
John Pickford Richards (viola)
Jay Campbell (cello)

Junge Deutsche Philharmonie
Jonathan Nott (conductor)

It is extraordinary to think that Helmut Lachenmann’s Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied, written in 1979 and 1980, is now almost forty years old; or perhaps, on reflection, it is not. When one considers how much Lachenmann, still considered dangerously outré by many fifteen or twenty years ago, is now not only accepted but welcomed and even loved as a grand old man of German music, and indeed the world’s, it makes a good deal of sense. (It happens to them all.) The play between familiar material – a brief spoken and musical introduction involving the composer will have rendered it so to all – and what we, in the midst of its disintegration and reintegreation, might consider its pasts and futures is not, Lachenmann advised, comical (komisch) but rather cheerful (heiter). The distinction can be a fine one, most likely lost in my attempt at translation. It was not, however, lost in this excellent performance from the JACK Quartet, the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, and Jonathan Nott. Nor was Lachenmann’s opening, Stravinskian acknowledgement: ‘Wir Komponisten sind Parasiten’ (‘We composers are parasites’), referring not only to his use of Deutschlandlieder (Haydn, Bach, and others) but his remodelling of Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life into a version of his own ‘the music in my [German, bourgeois] life’. Indeed, he proceeded to acknowledge the Christmas Oratorio’s ‘Pastoral Symphony’ as a song not only of his Existenz but his Heimat. (Think Edgar Reitz and Hermann Simon, if you will…)

A classic, then, of musique concrète instrumentale and of German music’s self-reckoning received a performance worthy of such classical status, without losing any of its immediacy and excitement. The quartet’s opening play with material from Haydn’s imperial hymn left open the question of deconstruction or reconstruction: why not have both, and more? It also, crucially, bade us listen intently, as if pre-empting the late music of Lachenmann’s teacher, Luigi Nono. So too did the full orchestra, when employed, its make-up at any one time constantly changing, yet never quite rejection the concerto grosso-ish line-up. Webern’s example was surely heard in the expert (both in work and performance) passing of lines between instruments, although the outcome rightly felt very different. Metrical transformations and restatements proved just as important as those of melody or harmony; this is, after all, a dance suite. Indeed, one had the impression almost of melodic lines rushing to grasp hold of metres, being carried forward upon them, transformed and yet also restated by them. When music from the gigues of two Bach French Suites is given the Lachenmann treatment, is it the gigue (an acknowledged dance in the ninth of the work’s seventeenth parts) or Bach’s notes that will endure? Does that question even make any sense? Even if it does, should one be asking it at that time? It was quite a ride, both immediate and mediated.

Lachenmann’s enthusiasm for Strauss’s Alpine Symphony is well known. I do not know what he thinks of Ein Heldenleben, but it made for a fascinating companion-piece: a self-reckoning of its own, of course, often bizarrely misunderstood as mere egotism. Nott seemed especially keen to emphasis the piece’s symphonic qualities, the opening section ‘Der Held’, perhaps slightly slower, even sturdier, than often one hears, insistent in its grounding of the E-flat major to which it will, to which it must, return. Like Lachenmann in its way, it bade me listen. Not that there was any want of colour from the excellent young players, but this was clearly not intended as an orchestral showpiece. The opening of ‘Des Helden Widersacher’ was in turn quicker than is typically heard, affording greater contrast that yet had clearly evolved, even if one could not quite say how, from preceding material.  ‘Wir Komponisten sind Parasiten’; wir Kritiker auch… An organised chaos of carping woodwind melodies seemed almost to prefigure the birdsong of Messiaen, albeit with considerably more negative intent. Throughout these and other contrasts, Nott ensured continuity of line and sound, which is not to say unexciting, communication of fundamental harmonic rhythm, which far too often can be lost in performances of this music.

The concertmaster’s solo in ‘Des Helden Gefährtin’ showed both dramatic flair and eminently musical phrasing: in a sense, emblematic of the performance as a whole. So too was the depth of orchestral string tone, which yet never overwhelmed nor came close to doing so. That was not the point – and the musicians, Nott certainly included, knew it. For there was similar depth to his conception of the piece overall: not necessarily without irony, but understanding that irony will better be expressed through underlying seriousness of purpose. The closing sections brought both a symphonic sense of arrival and, very much in Beethoven’s Eroica footsteps, further development. Indeed, Strauss’s invention here registered with uncommon skill; too often, this music finds itself unwittingly belittled as mere winding down or tailpiece. A dignified, close, nothing exaggerated, furthered poignancy that arose from the notes and the connections between them, affording apt comparison and contrast with the thinking, writing, and performance of Lachenmann.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Musikfest Berlin (8) – BPO/Harding: Berlioz, 13 September 2019


Berlioz: Roméo et Juliette, op.17

Kate Lindsey (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Staples (tenor)
Shenyang (bass-baritone)

Berlin Radio Chorus (chorus master: Gijs Leenaars)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Harding (conductor)

It is perhaps unavoidable, if nonetheless undesirable, that, on going to Berlioz performances, I still find myself thinking of Sir Colin Davis and how what I am about to hear will likely fail to match up. (I do the same for Mozart too, perhaps with greater reason.) Unavoidable or no, there was no need to worry on this particular occasion, for Daniel Harding’s Roméo et Juliette with the Berlin Philharmonic proved a wonderful, in many respects outstanding, performance from beginning to end. Harding’s understanding and communication of that understanding spoke throughout, without ever drawing attention to itself; so too did his rapport with the Berlin musicians, and their evident delight in this often miraculous score.

The first movement started as it meant to go on, imbued with exhilarating energy, with a nervous physicality to the string playing that had one feel rosin fly from the bows. During the introduction, as indeed the movement and work as wholes, the instruments truly ‘spoke’, as truly as any words, recitativo accompagnato transformed into the symphonic.  The Prologue brought bubbly woodwind and beautifully balanced choral singing to the fore, narrative, verbal or otherwise, as keen as commentary, insofar as the two may be distinguished. Kate Lindsey’s velvety mezzo proved a perfect foil for the small choir (the larger choral complement still waiting in the wings). So too, in the ‘scherzetto’ section, fully reprising yet never merely repeating the energy of the opening, did Andrew Staples’s brief, yet valued, contribution.  This is Berlioz’s doing, of course, yet it still requires performance: the excellent sense of the composer’s metanarrative to Shakespeare came across as clearly and as meaningfully as I can recall. The movement closed with all the neo-Gluckian dignity one could ask for – and then some. ‘Montagus, domptés par les douleurs, se rapprochent enfin pour abjurer la haine, qui fit verser tant de sang et de pleurs.’

The purely orchestral drama of the second movement fared just as well. Its opening yearning, ‘Roméo seul’, fully justified Wagner’s enthusiasm and admission of its influence upon Tristan. Here, as elsewhere, Berlioz’s legacy to his colleague – it was never an easy relationship, which reflects upon both composers – was shown to be far more than the ‘mechanical means’ of which Wagner wrote, somewhat damning with restricted praise, in Oper und Drama. This was poignant, deeply moving. The Capulet ball naturally echoed its counterpart in the Symphonie fantastique, as well as declaring kinship with the soundworld of Benvenuto Cellini, but there was no doubting the particularity of these events, their own character and momentum; nor was there any doubt of the players enjoying themselves, dancing metaphorically. The ‘nuit sereine’ that followed first offered a suggestive instance of spatial drama, the orchestra in the foreground, departing revellers offstage. The celebrated ‘Scène d’amour’ was as ardent as any I have heard, the wonder of young love palpable surely even to the most hardened of cynics. (Not I, Your Honour.) Harding’s control of dramatic pace and reflection was once again noteworthy for never drawing attention to itself, apparently presenting the score ‘as is’. I could not help but think Sir Colin would have admired it.

The Queen Mab scherzo benefited – it almost goes without saying, yet should not – from the greatest technical excellence, a welcome opportunity to revel in Berlioz’s mastery of orchestration; yet its musicodramatic function is just as important, and proved just as impressively communicated. The fifth movement’s processional and commentary were held in fine balance, so too the musical presence of Juliet’s light that (may) have been extinguished. Its successor, ‘Roméo au tombeau des Capulets’, took us through its various stages, ‘Invocation-Réveil de Juliette-Joie délirante, désespoir, dernières angoisses et mort des deux amants’, with the keenest of imagination, almost as if the story and its retelling were new to us. The finale revealed in Shenyang a Friar Laurence of impeccable diction, dark-hued and often thrilling delivery, and great musical sensitivity. His air, ‘Pauvres enfants’ was direct, unfussy, an excellent foil for the orchestra around him. For Harding and the Berlin Philharmonic conveyed the movement’s twists and turns with quicksilver response, the brass as imposing as the bass soloist when required. A magnificent close, the chorus at full strength, set the seal on a delightful evening. Berlioz does not always emerge the better for performers’ struggles with his work; on this occasion, he unquestionably did.

Musikfest Berlin (7): Aimard/Kakuta: Schubert and Lachenmann, 12 September 2019


Schubert: Piano Sonata no.18 in G major, D 894
Lachenmann: GOT LOST (2007-8)

Yuko Kakuta (soprano)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

A fascinating pairing of Schubert and Lachenmann from Pierre-Laurent Aimard and, in the latter, Yuko Kakuta. In some ways, roles, at least roles as might popularly be assumed, were reversed. What we heard was plain-spoken, even austere, day I say modernist, Schubert, followed by vividly dramatic, accessible, perhaps even Romantic Lachenmann. Such labels doubtless beg more questions than they answer, but then so, quite properly, do such performances. At any rate, Aimard provoked us in the best way: not out of some desire to épater les bourgeois, but to make us listen, to think, and most likely to reconsider our lazy assumptions, bourgeois or otherwise.

Basic pulse and metre were established right from the start of the G major Piano Sonata, D 894. You might think that obvious, yet it is far from a given. Aimard’s account of the first movement flowed, and was flexible, but never lost sight (or hearing) of that fundamental pulse. Thematic groups remained distinct but also emerged from one another, in a performance anything but maudlin, imbued with a fine sense of fresh discovery, indispensable in such (over-)familiar repertoire. Aimard captured both the deception and the simplicity in its deceptive simplicity, not least in a vigorous, determined development section. The Andante was similarly direct and without predetermined framework, performance seemingly arising from the notes rather than vice versa. Every note likewise told in the minuet, sometimes as gruffly as in Beethoven, though never sounding remotely like him. There were no easy answers – or even easy questions. A slower tempo for the trio came across less as relaxation than as strange intensification, whose mysteries seemed to foreshadow the Chopin of the mazurkas. The finale, likewise, was rendered strange in a way that compelled one to listen. Modulations, almost always key to Schubert’s music, surprised, even shocked. Modernist Schubert? I suppose so, but ultimately this seemed less a matter of such a broad aesthetic, still less such an aesthetic applied, than of Aimard’s Schubert.

Lachenmann’s GOT LOST takes its name from one of its three verbal sources, a note in the lift of a Grunewald apartment block used by Fellows of the Wissenschaftkolleg zu Berlin: ‘Today my laundry basket got lost. It was last since standing in front of the dryer. Since it is pretty difficult to carry the laundry without it I’d be most happy to get it back.’ The other two texts employed are an extract from Nietzsche’s Gay Science, its Wanderer message full of association for anyone vaguely acquainted with German Romanticism, and a poem by Fernando Pesso (under the pseudonym, Álvaro de Campos),’ ‘Todas as cartas de amor são ridículas’ (‘All love-letters are ridiculous’). According to the composer, these are ‘three only seemingly incompatible texts’. ‘Stripped of their pathos-laden, poetic and profane diction,’ they are despatched by:

… the same sound-source – a soprano voice singing ‘in whatever way’  – into a intervallically ever-changing field of sound, reverberation and movement. Calling out, playfully, ‘warbling’ and lamenting arioso: they interrupt and pervade one another, thus marking out a space that ultimately remains foreign to them, and in which – as in all my compositions – music reflects upon itself with ‘expression’ -less joviality, thus showing its awareness of the transcendent, god-less message of ‘ridicolas’  that unifies these three texts.

Un-Romantic, even anti-Romantic, then? Yes and no. The idea of music in itself, shorn of ‘expression’ has all manner of associations, many of them at least heirs to the Romanticism Lachenmann has long deconstructed and perhaps, just perhaps, even reconstructed. A post-Nietzschean revaluation of values, if we like, does not perhaps change those values, whether in work or performance, as much as we might suspect. Transcendence, after all, remains – and what could be more Romantic, even Wagnerian, than that?

For performance will always play its part, even when, sometimes especially when, that outcome is guarded against. So it did here, in superlative performances from Aimard and Kakuta, performances I find it impossible to imagine bettered. (And what would be the point of such imagination?) Every note, every articulation, every connection between notes, articulations, and so much more, to the whole, remains crucial; or, at least, so the illusion holds. Romantic ghosts? Perhaps. But are not those ghosts actually more performances of earlier music, such as Schubert’s? Monteverdi, perhaps the ultimate source, known or unknown, acknowledged or acknowledged, for all ‘modern’ music in the Western tradition, seemed once again reborn in this scena for the twenty-first century (2007-8). Music theatre? Again, perhaps, but like so many such concepts, it seemed more an historical reference than anything else. Perhaps Joycean music would be more to the point, at least for me, even the Mahlerian conception of the symphony as a world. In reality, we shall act differently, although surely all with the joviality of which Lachenmann spoke. Kakuta sang into the piano, only for the piano’s resonances to sing back to her, to us; Aimard responded in all manner of ways, instrumental and extra-instrumental. The term ‘extended techniques’, whether for voice or piano, seemed so beside the point as to suggest that, at long last, it should be dropped. These are surely ‘just’ techniques, ‘just’ music. The final climax, when it came, might even have seemed conventional, yet no less extraordinary for that. Whatever we may wish to label, to say, to think, this was a performance no one there would likely ever forget. Outstanding.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Schoenberg at 145: selected works and recordings on his birthday

Charlie Chaplin, Gertrud and Arnold Schoenberg, Los Angeles, 1935
(Photographer: Max Munn Autrey)

Arnold Schoenberg was the twentieth century’s most violently controversial composer; he remains so for us. Was he its greatest? Perhaps, perhaps not: there will always be several other deserving pretenders to the title; it is scarcely a title worth bothering about. Is his music the most performed, the most listened to? Certainly not. Indeed part of his ‘greatness’, certainly of his controversy, lies in confrontation with a world that often will not listen, sometimes does not even know. Schoenberg’s is in many ways a tragic story that yet awaits its true catharsis. Like Beethoven, the degree of Schoenberg’s influence dwarfs that of any other twentieth-century composer, Stravinsky included. The latter’s Rite of Spring, Les Noces, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and so on undoubtedly changed the face of twentieth-century music; yet Schoenberg’s break with the tonal universe within which Western art music had operated for roughly three centuries and his subsequent adoption of the ‘method of composing with twelve notes related only to one another’ utterly transformed its course. That transformation extended far beyond mere ‘influence’. When the soprano in Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet sings that she feels the ‘air of another planet’, not only do we feel it too; we know that, having breathed that air, nothing will ever quite be the same again – even if, perhaps especially if, we elect to return to tonality, be it that of earlier or later music.

Schoenberg remains the great modernist composer, forbidding and heroic, in life and work a standing, intransigent rebuke to the commercialist imperatives of his time and ours. He was, however, much more than that too. He was also a Viennese Jew who converted to Lutheranism and back again. He lived his life largely between Vienna and Berlin; then, following the Nazi seizure of power, he lost his job, his bearings, his life, and became an exile, settling far from the Central European culture in which he had grown up, in Los Angeles. Born in the vanished world – a world always with us in its art and in its history too – of Austria-Hungary, an anti-Semite on every street corner, Schoenberg died, not only having lived through the trauma, which he had long foreseen, of the Holocaust, but having witnessed the creation of the State of Israel, a Zionist project to which he felt and voiced the strongest yet most difficult of connections.

This is a story I have recently been trying to tell, not least through the music that lies at its very heart. For if we never listen, how shall we know? If I have one piece of advice, however, it would be to forget, at least for now, the disputes surrounding this music, whether ‘for’ or ‘against’. Listen to this music as part of an œuvre that has more in common, both with itself and with the great Austro-German tradition with which Schoenberg so proudly identified himself, than many would ever admit; by all means listen to it too as a harbinger of the musical world to come, of Boulez and Stockhausen, of Henze and Nono. Above all, however, listen to Schoenberg’s music as music, and let its hyper-expressivity speak to you as might that of Wagner and Brahms, of Bach and Mozart, of Beethoven and Mahler.

Verklärte Nacht

It would be well-nigh inconceivable not to start with the string sextet, Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’), one of Schoenberg’s earliest essays in the art of reconciling Wagnerian harmonic development with Brahmsian motivic writing. One can think of it, listen to it, that way if one likes, or one can listen to it as a response to Richard Dehmel’s erotic poem, whose narrative structure it follows closely, the latter’s five stanzas reflected, even transfigured in five contrasted musical sections; with Schoenberg, it is rarely a matter of either/or. Odd-numbered sections present the forest: there is sepulchral darkness to the opening, as our (aural) eyes adjust, but also the sense of a gateway to something unknown, dangerous perhaps, yet also exciting. The second and fourth sections present Dehmel’s words of woman and man respectively. The woman confesses that she had married a man she did not love; she had therefore yielded to another, a stranger, whose child she now bears. Transfiguration is effected through the man’s nobility of soul, manifested not in a self-denying act of charity, but in a violin and cello duet of love. ‘Two people walk through the high, bright night.’ The 1950 Hollywood Quartet recording, for which Schoenberg himself wrote a programme note, may have been matched, but it has never been surpassed.


If Tristan und Isolde haunts the pages of Verklärte Nacht, how much more so does it the gargantuan tale of love, betrayal, and catharsis, Gurrelieder. Götterdämmerung does too, not least in the parallel vassals’ chorus. One may readily forget, given the accomplishment of his orchestral writing here, that Schoenberg had never previously written a completed work calling for full, let alone such gargantuan, orchestra. (He had to order special manuscript paper for the number of staves required; none such existed.) Listen to its course, however, and you will hear the change in Schoenberg’s orchestral writing over the period of its orchestration, long put to one side for financial reasons. Harmony and melody remain, but the final part speaks of a world that had known the first fruits of ‘atonality’. Claudio Abbado and massed Berlin forces, many artists the same as in his commercial Vienna Philharmonic recording, capture the work’s late Romanticism and modernity to a tee.

String Quartet no.2

How could one not include this fabled quartet? In many ways, it is an ‘easier’ listen than Schoenberg’s first numbered essay in this genre. The journey from tonality to atonality provides a narrative of its own, Schoenberg’s compositional journey more generally telescoped into a drama first without and then with words. Ghosts of Vienna past are, typically for Schoenberg, ever present. Listen to the second violin’s singing of a line from the Viennese popular song ‘Ach du lieber Augustin’, suggestive of something afoot: ‘It’s all over, it’s all over.’ Soon: ‘Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten.’ (‘I feel the air of another planet.’) Gravity, tonal or planetary, loses its pull: ‘I lose myself in tones, circling, weaving … I feel I am above the last cloud.’ The final ‘resolution’, such as it is, returning to F-sharp minor, in which key the quartet had opened, is surprising, even perverse. This, to quote the title of a lecture Schoenberg would give in exile, is ‘How one becomes lonely’ – or is it how one becomes free, becomes ultimately reconciled with a new world? Are they one and the same, as Brahms (frei aber froh) might have counselled him? Here are the New Vienna Quartet from 1967:


The Second String Quartet, written in 1908, prepared the way for a ‘miracle year’, 1909, in Schoenberg’s output, comparable to that of Schubert in 1815 or Schumann in 1840. How to choose but one work from this highpoint of ‘free atonality’? Answers, perhaps, on one of the many postcards Schoenberg, sometimes affectionate, sometimes playful, sometimes angry, loved to send. His one-act opera (a ‘monodrama’, with a single character), Erwartung has at least as great a claim as any. It remains one of the astounding musical accomplishments of the twentieth century. The libretto was written by a dermatologist, Marie Pappenheim, later an important figure in the German sexual liberation movement: she offered a clinical understanding of hysteria as the context for the extraordinary outpouring we hear – and feel. ‘The aim,’ Schoenberg would explain in 1929, ‘is to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour.’ The single event, the Woman’s stumbling over the corpse of her lover, essentially expands itself, both forwards and backwards, over time. Verklärte Nacht, then, is sped up, magnified, subverted, perhaps even reversed. Anja Silja, the Vienna Philharmonic, and Christoph von Dohnányi judge the work’s competing demands at least as well as any other artists, in a recording deservedly considered a classic.

Pierrot lunaire

If Erwartung is impossible for humans to perform to perfection, the very conception of Pierrot lunaire seems designed to preclude the possibility of reconciling so many competing forces. Is it a work of cabaret? Assuredly, yet not only that. Is it an instrumental masterpiece, as Stravinsky averred? Ditto. Again, best to listen, enjoy, and take it for what it is in any particular performance on any particular occasion. Recommendations do not come higher than Christine Schäfter, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and that most legendary yet ambivalent of Schoenbergians, Pierre Boulez. Herewith a film made with their recording:

Suite, op.25

Let us move ahead to the Roaring Twenties, to the world of the new twelve-note method. Always a method, Schoenberg insisted: never a system. The chronology of Schoenberg’s first works and sections of works written according to the new method – much of which he had been working towards earlier, even in Pierrot – is complex; we need not bother with it here. Instead, once again, only listen: here to the first work in its entirety written as such. The neo-Baroque Suite for Piano, op.25 will ideally performed with dazzling Bauhaus surface gleam that yet reveals an eminently Bösendorfer sensibility beneath. No one comes closer to that ideal for me than Maurizio Pollini (first movement), but Florent Boffard's recording offers an estimable alternative:

Moses und Aron

In Moses und Aron, the fourth and last of his operas, left incomplete – perhaps uncompletable – at his death, Schoenberg wrestled with so many of the themes of his music and life. It is a work about difficulty, about communication, about the relationship between genius and the public, between God and man. Ferociously difficult to perform, above all for the chorus, called upon to perform dodecaphonic Bach whilst performing an ‘erotic orgy’ around the Golden Calf, it is, however, anything but difficult to listen to: so long as one grants it due attention. Michael Gielen and Boulez, especially in his second, Concertgebouw recording of this searing drama, made in the wake of staged performance, penetrate to its heart as few others do. However, there remains something special indeed about the first performance, conducted by Hans Rosbaud, who told in a 1961 interview of a 'very dramatic moment in my career':

One night, perhaps at one o’clock, … the telephone rang furiously; the radio station of Hamburg … asked me if I could conduct the world premiere of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. The regular conductor [Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt] had [had] an accident and could not conduct the performance, for which the radio station had invited many important people …, among other guests, Mrs Schoenberg and her daughter Nuria … I asked, ‘When will this first performance take place?’ And they answered, ‘Exactly in one week … Mr Rosbaud, do come, you must come, you cannot abandon us in this desperate situation!

Violin Concerto

Schoenberg’s inability to complete Moses, no performance imaginable in exile, did not preclude composition and completion of a host of American works. Alleged unplayability – for the soloist, Jascha Heifetz having declared it so – long contributed to a mystique that did not help it be loved, or even listened to. However, the greatest difficulty seems to have been musical rather than technical. If the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms had proved notably ‘symphonic’ when compared with ‘easier’ works in the repertoire; Schoenberg’s, by contrast, seems to have rejoiced in mischievous play between the apparently contrasting demands of traditional virtuosity intensified and the twelve-note method. Yet there beats a traditional, even traditionalist, heart within, its three movements as expected, both in number and in type: sonata form-Andante grazioso-marching finale. Ultimately, this is a work of hyper-Romanticism, deserving both to be played and listened to as such. Zvi Zeitlin understood that well, here in a beautifully comprehending performance with Rafael Kubelík and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. As ever, the trick is to treat music as music: all else will follow.

A Survivor from Warsaw

Always inclined or rather destined to bear witness, Schoenberg became, if anything, still more so, once the Holocaust he had long foreseen came into barbaric being. ‘It means at first,’ he wrote, insistent both upon his faith and his status as a creative, not documentary, artist: ‘a warning to all Jews, never to forget what has been done to us, never to forget that even people who did not do it themselves, agreed with them and many of them found it necessary to treat us this way. … The main thing is, that I saw it in my imagination.’ The words, Schoenberg’s own, were derived from accounts by survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto. The gas chamber awaiting, they spontaneously erupt into a rendition, triumphant, defiant, indescribably harrowing, of the ancient Hebrew song, ‘Shema Yisroel’. Abbado and the VPO, alert to the work’s Mahlerian ghosts as well as to its Adornian challenge, prove superlative guides in this, our final stop for now.

For fuller recording recommendations, not restricted to YouTube, and indeed more on Schoenberg generally, please see my book, Arnold Schoenberg, published by Reaktion Books, distributed in the Americas by Chicago University Press.