For Arnold Schoenberg transcribing other composers' music served three functions: as an exercise in orchestration (one which he often set his students); as a way to enable a public performance of a work whose orchestral demands were considered too expensive; and even, on one memorable occasion, as a fund-raising activity.
It was in 1921 that Schoenberg and his pupils organised a benefit concert for their Society for Private Musical Performances - the organisation founded in 1918 by Schoenberg in order to perform music which would otherwise scarcely be heard; critics were not invited, nor was applause permitted.
The concert consisted of chamber transcriptions of waltzes by Johann Strauss II, made by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Schoenberg's version of Roses from the South, to be found on this highly attractive disc, was one of the works performed.
It is evident - and probably surprising to many - that Schoenberg had an enormous affection for Strauss; not only is the chamber version a delight, he returned to Strauss four years later and transcribed the Emperor Waltz, one of Strauss's finest works and also on this disc.
The major work included here came as something of a surprise to me: the Romantic Suite by Max Reger. Reger has a posthumous reputation as a dry, academic composer of dull, turgid music. I can only imagine that this calumny has come about through too many organists giving too many dull performances of his vast output of music for their instrument; familiarity with his orchestral and chamber music completely belies the myth.
Reger was, in fact, the most performed of all composers at the Society's concerts, but I was quite unprepared for the way in which the Suite, shorn of his at times over-ripe orchestration, revealed itself as a work set firmly in the Viennese tradition.
The shorter works included are Schubert's lieder Ständchen and two popular songs: the Viennese street song, Weil i a alter Drahrer bin - all 37 seconds of it - and the the Neapolitan Funiculi-Funicula; at least Schoenberg appears to have been aware that the latter was written by Luigi Denza (1846-1922). When Richard Strauss used the melody in his Aus Italien he was evidently under the impression that it was an Italian folk song; the news that the music had a) been written by a known person who was b) still alive apparently came as a something of a shock.
In the nine years of Kent Nagano's directorship, the National Opera of Lyon has attained international recognition; their section leaders are encouraged by Nagano to play chamber concerts; this is their first recording and it makes a splendid debut. They play affectionately and, in the main, idiomatically (although the Boston Chamber Players disc of Strauss transcriptions by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern on DG is perhaps even more so, and is well overdue for reissue on CD).
This disc is pure delight, from beginning to end. It is a pity that at just under 55 minutes, it constitutes rather short measure.
Copyright © 1997, Deryk Barker