Yoko Hirota Plays Schoenberg

NV6214 - cover

SCHOENBERG: 3 Klavierstücke, Op. 11. 5 Klavierstücke, Op. 23. Klavierstücke, Op. 33. 17 Fragments / Yoko Hirota, pno / Navona NV6214

This is not an original release by Navona but actually a reissue of Yoko Hirota’s first album, released by Phoenix Records in 2005. What I found most interesting about it is that Hirota does not play this music in the accepted modern angular style that has become so prevalent since Glenn Gould played and recorded Schoenberg many moons ago, but rather in a more lyrical style which is closer to the composer’s true aesthetic. My readers know that I have railed for years against what I call the “post-modern modernist approach” to such new music pioneers as Schoenberg, Berg and Bartók. Too many such pianists, apparently taking their cue from Charles Ives’ recordings of his own music which was “rough and ready” sounding, assume that these others are to be played the same way. They are not. We need to remember that Schoenberg was a product of the Viennese musical tradition, he was an early collaborator of violinist Fritz Kreisler, and that his later music is by the same composer of Verklärte Nacht and Gurre-lieder, which would scarcely sound credible if played with choppy, brittle phrasing.

Indeed, as Hirota correctly points out in her liner notes for this album, “Schoenberg’s demand for articulation became ever more obsessive. These meticulous directions better serve string writing, for example, than piano. However, these points demonstrate that Schoenberg was profoundly concerned with the search for a particular color produced on the piano… his interests in timbre and sonority are omnipresent in all five of his completed piano works.” It is these “meticulous directions” that she uses as a basis for her interpretations here, which I find not only effective but wholly convincing. The composer’s aesthetic view was not to present his 12-tone music as if it were something harsh and abrasive, attacked by steel hammers and dropped in form Mars, but rather an extension of the first Vienna school with its lyricism and arching phrases. He was also, as Hirota points out, a great admirer of Brahms, and the Brahmsian aesthetic informed his own by the time he reached the 17 Fragments.

Thus, in the first of the 5 Klavierstücke, one can hear her connecting the notes in her phrases as if they were adjacent tones and not separated by several intervals, and it is this view that permeates the entire album. In short, she views these pieces as music and not as an intellectual enigma to batter over the listener’s head. More interestingly, in the first of the Op. 22 Klavierstücke, Hirota almost plays it with a bit of a ragtime or jazz swagger, which might not be as inappropriate as you may think for its time and place, and in the first of the fragments (which is also one of the longest) she almost gives it a Latin rhythm.

As the series goes on and the fragments become ever shorter, several of them between 40 and 52 seconds, the disconnect with the non-attentive listener becomes more severe, but if one has paid attention to the longer, earlier fragments, one will be able to follow Schoenberg’s line of thinking with greater ease and thus be able to absorb what he was trying to accomplish. And some of these earlier fragments are surprisingly tonal for Schoenberg, which makes sense since he was basing some of them on the music of Brahms.

By performing the music in a consistently lyric style, Hirota has managed to tie these pieces together as being the work of the same musical mind. I will not pretend that, even here, these are all easy pieces to listen to, but even in the fragments, particularly fragment 12, one hears more “signposts” to guide the listener into what Schoenberg was trying to accomplish. This is surely one of the best recordings of these works ever released, and now my number one choice for the various Klavierstücke.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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