Holliger Conducts Schoenberg & Webern

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SCHOENBERG: Chamber Symphony No. 1. 6 Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19 (arr. for orch. by Holliger). WEBERN: Symphony. 5 Movements, Op. 5 (vers. for string orch.) / Lausanne Chamber Orch.; Heinz Holliger, cond / Fuga Libera FUG794

Heinz Holliger is, to me, a fascinating figure in the classical music world, a man who started his career as an oboist playing Baroque and other early music, yet whose later career as a conductor has taken him through the rest of musical history. This latest CD features him conducting two works by the seminal 12-tone composers Schoenberg and Webern that are not usually performed or recorded, each of their symphonies, in addition to other works, one of which Holliger himself arranged for orchestra (Schoenberg’s 6 Little Piano Pieces).

The Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, despite its very lean sound, takes a very musical approach to these works, meaning that they phrase the music with as much of a legato feeling as they can. Of course, the Chamber Symphony was part of Schoenberg’s earlier style, the era of Verklärte Nacht, Pelleas und Melisance and the first half of Gurre-Lieder, when he was pushing tonality to its limits but had not yet broken that system open. But what many conductors seem not to realize was that Schoenberg was a very emotional composer; he never conducted cold performances of his own music, and didn’t want others to do so either, thus this fluid yet very emotional approach is probably just what he wanted. One thing that struck me about this piece was its internal “busy-ness.” There’s a lot more going on here in the interaction between sections of the orchestra, and even within each section; there are many passages of quite complex counterpoint, not just in terms of pitting one section against the others but also in terms of the kinds of rhythms used. Schoenberg had one of those musical minds that could balance two, three, or even up to four different rhythms with different accents against one another and do so for several bars at a time. Of course, just this aspect of the music will undoubtedly lead Schoenberg-haters to assume that this music is all just an intellectual game, but as I said, that’s not true. It is emotionally affecting music as well, just very, very complex emotional music. And although this piece is not 12-tone, but rather rooted more or less in tonality, the tonality is often unsettled, moving around over a base of constantly shifting harmonies that always seem to be in flux. It’s a fascinating piece that continually holds your interest because it never stops moving and developing…not just a moto perpetuo but also a contrapuntal perpetuo. At about the 13:30 mark, Schoenberg suddenly shifts in tempo and mood to produce a lyrical melody reminiscent of Richard Strauss, but more advanced.

I also liked the sound quality of this recording: closely miked in order to bring out all of this incredible detail, yet just resonant enough not to make it sound too much like an old NBC Symphony broadcast. This is the perfect way to record this music, as this is the way the scores of Schoenberg and Webern sound when the music is performed “live” in a concert hall.

The Webern Symphony, a fully mature work from 1928, is on the other hand a purely cerebral exercise. Unlike Schoenberg, Webern conceived his music intellectually and dispassionately, thus the rather detached performance style exhibited here is also appropriate. As Tom Service wrote in The Guardian on December 17, 2013, “The paradox is that this apparently tiny, pocket-sized piece (its full score is written on just 16 pages), does things with the most important elements of all, our old friends musical space and time, that much grander symphonies take ten times as long to achieve.” Here’s the first page of the second movement:

Webern Symphony example

Although Holliger’s arrangement of Schoenberg’s piano pieces may sound at first like Webern, as the music goes on one can hear the difference between even this mature work of Schoenberg and that of his pupil and friend. There is more legato involved (Webern almost NEVER used legato phrases) and an undercurrent of emotional feeling even though this music is not nearly as emotional as the Chamber Symphony. The somewhat cooler emotion, however, stems from the fact that these pieces are to be played very softly (No. 4 being an exception), not from anything that Schoenberg felt when writing them. Nonetheless, hearing them orchestrated in this manner, and played immediately after the Webern Symphony, illustrates the close musical relationship between these two men.

Even more striking, to me at least, was the surprising kinship between these Schoenberg pieces and Webern’s 5 Movements, Op. 5. These were originally written for string quartet in 1909, thus this is “early” Webern even though this arrangement for string orchestra was made 19 years later. Here, there is indeed more legato in the music as well as continuity in the melodic line, particularly in the third piece, “Sehr lebhaft,” despite the fact that it only runs 48 seconds!

I tell ya what, those 12-tone guys were some snappy tune writers. Even if you own Robert Craft’s groundbreaking recordings of Webern and Schoenberg from the 1950s and ‘60s, this is a CD you’ll want to have, if only because of the extraordinarily excellent sound quality which is easily five times better. For those of us who can appreciate dodecaphonic music at its best, this disc is a gem.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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