Fifty-five years after his death, Anton Webern still leads listeners through a musical underworld where even dodecaphonic and atonal rules simply don't apply. Hans Bethge's words that Webern set to music apply to many of his compositions: "I lay in a strange land. The moon / spread white radiance before my couch." This "strange land" is filled with tonal wraiths and the "moon" is music suggested but not seen. Perhaps the "white radiance" could refer to those sparse (but oddly satisfying) pieces that are less than a minute long. They comprise the well-known Webern, the one that most of us experience through anthologies, performance, or on the radio.
But there is another Webern that only a boxed set like this can illuminate: The Webern who wrote more vocal pieces than chamber works, for example. His lieder – for which he sometimes wrote the text – is entrancingly sung by sopranos Christiane Oelze and Françoise Pollet, who instinctively sing their way around the harmonic crags. His choral works, canons, and cantatas, some based on poems by Hildegard Jone, contain joyous words that initially clash with the fragmented tone cells, then merge with them. This may be due to the fact that the BBC Singers successfully convey a soothing and mysterious atmosphere. His 8 Early Lieder and 3 Poems, lush late Romantic works, ache with longing. He was not beneath doing work for hire, orchestrating Bach's Fuga and Schubert's German Dances, ironically his most popular work in troubled pre-war Germany and Austria. His wispy forty-eight second Kinderstück is perhaps the world's only children's serialist piano lesson.
In several of the volumes, the genres are grouped chronologically, so that one can experience the progression in Webern's compositional style: Volume 3 starts with his early Schoenberg tribute, the Piano Quintet, and ends with the mystifying Concerto; Volume 5 opens with the gushy Langsammer Satz and ends with the spikey String Quartet, which concludes so abruptly you may want to cue it back.
It's not surprising that all performances are uniformly excellent. Boulez has been practicing (and recording) these pieces for years. Some – I'm not sure all – have appeared on other DGG recordings. But in scope and performance, this Webern is definitive. Get it if you crave works whose flights are as unpredictable as those of Tiger Swallowtails.
Copyright © 2001, Peter Bates