Schoenberg’s String Music in Fabulous Performances

Schoenberg cover

SCHOENBERG: String Quartets: Nos. 1-4.3 Verklärte Nacht.4,5 Phantasy for Violin & Piano.2 Ode to Napoleon.1,2 String Trio, Op. 45. 6 Kleine Klavierstücke (arr. for string quartet). Wind Quintet (arr. for string quintet).4 String Quartet in D. Chamber Symphony No. 1 (arr. Webern for string quartet & piano).2 Concerto for String Quartet & Orchestra (arr. of Handel’s Op. 6 No. 7)6 / Schoenberg String Quartet; 1Michael Grandage, speaker; 2Sepp Grotenhuis, pianist; 3Susan Narucki, soprano; 4Jan Erik van Regteren Altena, violist; 5Taco Kooistra, cellist; 6Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra; 6Roberto Benzi, conductor / Chandos 9939-43

This is one of those sets that could easily be viewed as overkill by those listeners who are less inclined towards the music of Arnold Schoenberg: not only all four of his string quartets and the string quintet, but also the string trio, the sextet version of Verklärte Nacht, Ode to Napoleon, the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra based on Handel, an arrangement of the 6 Kleiner Klavierstücke for string quartet and Anton Webern’s piano quintet arrangement of the Chamber Symphony No. 1. Oh, yes, and there’s also the Phantasy for violin and piano.

It would indeed be easy to thus walk away from such a huge venture, spread out over five CDs, except that the Dutch-based Schoenberg String Quartet has made such a specialty of this composer’s music over the past few decades that you would be remiss to do so. A while back I gave a good review to Schoenberg’s Quartets Nos. 2 and 4 played by the Gringolts Quartet, and they are indeed fine performances, but the competing versions by the Schoenberg Quartet are just that much more idiomatic and attuned to the special complexities of his scores. To wit, many quartets tend to overplay their hand in attacking certain passages with too much energy, which then leaves the contrasting sections a bit flat. The Schoenberg Quartet musicians have found a way to even out the temperament of each piece, giving its full due and exploring each one’s special character.

For the record, the Schoenberg Quartet on these recordings, made between 1991 and 1999, consists of Janneke van der Meer (soloist in the Phantasy) and Wim de Jong on violins, Henk Guittart on viola, and Viola de Hoog on cello. The other musicians added here and there are all identified in the header. (I admit having a strange fondness for the name of cellist Taco Kooistra, who plays in Verklärte Nacht. I think it has something to do with my early fondness for Zantigo, a fast-Mexican-food chain back in the 1970s.)

And their performances of all this music—and I mean all of it—are so riveting, so completely engrossing, that you almost don’t mind even the thorniest passages. When they get to some of Schoenberg’s more tonal and/or attractive works, such as Verklärte Nacht and the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra after Handel, their performances are so good that they virtually eclipse everyone else. Even the Phantasy is given a performance that absolutely rivets your attention, and the musical style is better than the Yehudi Menuhin-Glenn Gould recording.

Ordinarily I don’t like chamber group or orchestral transcriptions of piano or solo violin music, but I really enjoyed the quartet’s transcription of the 6 Little Piano Pieces because they had the same feel as Schoenberg’s 5 Orchestral Pieces, which I’ve known and liked for years. I’m sure it had a lot to do with their superb performance style as much as with the transcription itself. On the other hand, I didn’t care much for their transcription of the Wind Quintet, probably because you really can’t substitute strings for winds. The music just has an altogether different feel.

Happily, the last disc is tremendous. The Schoenberg Quartet does a splendid job with the early (1897) String Quintet, which sounds for all the world like something Schubert might have written. Who knew that Grumpy Arnie had such a jolly streak in him at one time? Next comes Anton Webern’s arrangement of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony for piano quintet, and this is a splendid transcription that fully captures the spirit of the original. The quartet’s performance, with pianist Grotenhuis, is scintillating.

We end our excursion of Schoenberg’s string music with an oddity, a Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra based on Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6 No. 7. This has the same kind of colorful orchestration, including xylophone, as Schoenberg’s arrangement of the Brahms Piano Quartet, for many years nicknamed the “Brahms Fifth Symphony.” But here Schoenberg does not transcribe Handel literally, as he did with Brahms, but rather plays around with the music, rearranging or omitting themes and connecting passages, changing tempos and harmonies to suit himself. It’s a spirited romp, and both the Schoenberg Quartet and the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra (who dey?) have a ball with the score.

Despite my misgivings about the string arrangement of the Wind Quintet (and to a lesser extent of the 6 Little Piano Works), this is a set that will get more than a few plays on your CD system. Think of it as a cornucopia of Schoenberg, if such a thing tickles your fancy. They’re clearly the best performances you’ll ever hear of this music.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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