SCHOENBERG: Scherzo in F; Presto in C; Ch. Symphony; String Quartet No. 3 – Jaromir Klepac, p./ Prazak Q. – Praga

by | Jul 7, 2011 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

SCHOENBERG: Scherzo in F; Presto in C; Chamber Symphony, Op. 9 (arr. Webern); String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30 – Jaromir Klepac, piano/ Prazak Quartet – Praga multichannel SACD 250 278, 64:28 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
Oh, what a difference a hundred years makes! Listening to the early Scherzo and Presto for String Quartet here, you would never have an idea that Schoenberg was going to evolve as he did; in fact, these two pieces by the 22-year-old composer are about as innocuous as you can imagine – tonal, tuneful, even a little rigidly-scented with parlor-perfume in many ways. But I think these judgments are only valid for us looking back and already knowing who Arnold Schoenberg is. For the composer of the Op. 25 Piano Pieces, yes, this is tame stuff; for those people in 1896 hearing this for the first time he was lauded as a “new Mozart” and the comparison was not as far-fetched as you might imagine. These two skimpy little pieces have enough fission in them to warrant comparison with Beethoven’s later quartet movements, and in fact Schoenberg may have been the very first composer—and that includes Brahms—to understand what Beethoven had really done, and how to imitate it.
But he didn’t waste a lot of time on the subject, and before you knew it, in only a span of ten years he produced the Chamber Symphony, Op. 9. This piece leaves Beethoven in the dust, and Schoenberg’s interval-of-a-fourth harmonic concept explores melodic, harmonic, and textural aspects of music in a nearly unprecedented way to that point in time. Anton Webern agreed, remaining fascinated by the work’s thematic unity, and created two reduced versions: the one here for piano quintet, and one for flute, clarinet, and piano trio. Schoenberg’s chamber music, or at least much of it, defies instrumentation, and here it works as well as the original with the slight inconvenience of some loss of color—but not too much. The music to our ears is still very easy-going all things considered, and it is nice to have this Webern adornment available.
Schoenberg never renounced tradition—his whole life was one augmented effort in search of expanding tradition, of seeking ways to work within the system. Unlike Wagner, who sought to expand melodic and harmonic concepts while refashioning new forms and discarding old ones when needed, Schoenberg liked the old forms; to him it would have been as absurd as doing away with the concept of a novel for instance, in favor of some newly-invented poetic form. But he did insist on rearranging the words in the book, scrambling them, reversing them, inverting them, and making us read—or listen—in new ways. Today, after particularly the advent of Elliott Carter’s quartets, with their nearly impenetrable textures and impossibly complex formal systems, Schoenberg’s quartets sound easy. Even as far back as 1977 when I finished college it was not so—if it hadn’t been for the LaSalle Quartet on DGG I don’t know if I would have ever really gotten to know these works. As it is, I don’t think I did, at least not until much later when even more rigorous listening experiences shed a sort of backward-looking light on these pieces. Now they are positively accessible, and as I have come to recognize Schoenberg for the genius he is, I can easily see his formal structures in their admiration of Brahms, and even the beginnings of the twelve-tone system as logically valid – if hardly universal in scope (he was wrong about that).
This is the fifth volume of the Prazak Quartet’s admirable SACD Schoenberg series, and it’s a real winner. I was delighted with the Quartet No. 4 disc and can’t see any reason to lessen my enthusiasm now. I was a little irritated about the under-an-hour timing (which Editor Sunier took issue with) but that point is moot here as the sin has been assuaged with a fine 64 ½ minute total. This is a great series, a must for Schoenberg lovers, and at the very least a major cause of peaked curiosity for everyone else.
— Steven Ritter

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