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CD Review

Anton Webern

London 444593

Orchestral Works

  • Passacaglia, Op. 1
  • 6 Pieces, Op. 6
  • Symphony, Op. 21
  • 5 Pieces, Op. 10
  • Variations, Op. 30
  • Im Sommerwind
  • Johann Sebastian Bach: Fuga ricercata à 6
Cleveland Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi
London 444593-2 67:59
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Mighty minis.

I've always found the adoption of Webern as the standard-bearer of music of the past fifty years more than a little strange. His style I would have thought too individual for other composers to acquire. There certainly were a lot of banal, Webernian knock-offs written after the war, as well as habits that in other hands became clichés of contemporary music. I'm not sure Webern would have been entirely pleased. The polemics that issued forth on both sides of the postwar music debate generated very little light. The pros really did their best to reduce some incredibly beautiful music to cookie-cutter patterns. This and the fact that so few performances of Webern hit the mark - Craft's pioneering recordings of the complete works were (to put it mildly) vacuous, missing the musical point time after time - may have led certain antis to the conclusion that Webern wrote bloodless, "intellectual" (in its insulting sense), eye music. That's certainly how much of it sounded to me. I spent a year under duress analyzing the Variations. At the end, I knew a lot about the patterns of the music, but very little about the music as an emotional experience. In short, I hated it as much at the end of my study as I did at the beginning.

Then I had the great good luck to sing the second cantata. Working through the piece for performance with a really good musician won for me the breakthrough I needed. Not everyone, however, has this kind of opportunity. On the other hand, I also heard and performed a great deal of other pieces not by Webern, but influenced by him. Eventually, the composer's entire output opened up to me as music through this kind of familiarity. I could experience it in the same general way as I would, say, Mozart. I didn't need to "retune" my ears or to make special allowances, and as the decades have passed, the artistic profile of Webern has changed for me - from far-out and revolutionary to deeply conservative. One of my early insights had to do with the fact that at the time I didn't really care for Classical or Romantic music. It bored me harmonically and melodically. I've changed a bit, but at the time it was true. The fact that Webern didn't sound like the usual suspects worked in his favor. I was also singing and studying the great Flemish choral music of the Renaissance. On the page, just as far as layout of "parts" is concerned, one notices a startling similarity to a composer like Josquin or Obrecht - the same severe economy of note against note. I later found out that Webern had produced a well-regarded study on Flemish Renaissance composers, and that fact didn't surprise me one jot.

Webern's music creates a very special world: intensely meditative. The intensity rises so high, the vision is so white-hot, that one sustains it for only a brief time. Not coincidentally, Webern's entire output fits easily on two CDs. If you don't like one piece, wait three minutes and you'll get another. Webern studied with Schoenberg, a fairly gutsy choice, since at the time Schoenberg was hardly established and barely out of his apprenticeship himself. From the beginning, however, one notices a marked difference between the two composers. Schoenberg - for all his innovation in orchestration, "harmony," and musical structure - remains essentially a whole-hearted, post-Wagnerian Romantic. Webern, on the other hand, even in his early Im Sommerwind shows a certain ambivalence to the late Nineteenth Century. One hears not only many lush textures, typical of German music after Wagner (the score's grandfather is something like the Siegfried-Idyl), but also a certain muscularity and a fascination with a single line of music in isolated bursts. One encounters the intensity from the beginning. Clearly, Webern's music doesn't really relax. This is a composer who regards music as a meditative instrument. Unlike Schoenberg as well, Webern's music lacks a certain kind of ambition - no real concern about how his music "fits" into the hierarchy of Western music. With Schoenberg's violin concerto, for example, one feels the composer in a kind of competition with the examples of Beethoven and Brahms. Webern's music inhabits mainly its own space, in an almost social isolation and disregard.

Calum MacDonald calls the opus one Passacaglia Webern's "graduation piece" after four years of study with Schoenberg. He also points out similarities with the finale of the Brahms fourth symphony. What strikes me, however, is how un-Brahmsian and un-Wagnerian the work is, despite the marriage of Brahms' general structure to Wagner's harmonies. For its time, the sound is fairly astringent - like Mahler in a sullen mood. One encounters the contrapuntal habit of late nineteenth-century counter-melodic filigree, but there's so little of it, one can hardly call it filigree. There's a harsh clarity, far more akin to middle-period Mahler than to late Brahms, and - despite its ten-minute run (making it one of Webern's longest) - great economy of expression. No section outstays its welcome.

Both the Passacaglia and Im Sommerwind are - for those who care - tonal. Opus 6 and opus 10 are not. They are - again, for those keeping score - freely atonal and not serial: that is, without a key center and also without the organizing principle of a base ordering of all twelve chromatic pitches. This does not, however, mean the music lacks organization, but that the organization is more intuitive and relies more strongly on each individual composer. All of Webern's music - like almost all of Brahms' music - is highly organized, no matter what the idiom. Because of this tight patterning, the music is introduced to people almost always in structural and technical ways, which I consider a mistake and one which limits the audience mainly to people who can read music. Even so, you can wind up as I did: knowing a great deal of technical information about Webern's scores and not giving a damn. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms have this same degree of organization, but there are other, non-technical paths into their music. Through these, non-techies and techies alike can embrace the work. Webern has such paths as well, and I will try to indicate what they are for me.

Webern makes the move to free atonality at roughly the same time Schoenberg does and with very much the same result: a long creative silence. I prefer Webern to Schoenberg in this vein, mostly because Webern's music is shorter. I happen to dislike in general the 19th-century music which followed Wagner (and have never warmed to Tristan). Most of it seems to degenerate into something that sounds like a high-school kid or a village organist noodling around. Not for me endless melody, unless it's Wagner's. I prefer a melody go somewhere, rather than merely on and on. Many of Schoenberg's freely-atonal scores wander aimlessly to me. Webern's melodies, on the other hand, are extremely short. They are over before you realize it. The trick here is to catch them quickly. Webern uses his new harmonic freedom to experiment radically with phrasing and orchestration and in the process seems to redefine music. You don't hear music like this before Webern. He expands the possibilities of musical validity. To a great extent, Webern's scores during this period are highly finished sketches, like Seurat's - studies for something larger that nevertheless are beautiful in their own right. Despite their considerable original beauty, the Op. 6 pieces still retain obvious ties to traditional musical thinking and thus furnish an excellent introduction to Webern's world. Despite their brevity, they show a wide, though subtle range of mood, from agitation of the second piece ("Bewegt") to the tender elusiveness of the third ("Zart bewegt"). My favorite of the set is the relatively long (five-and-a-half minutes) fourth ("Langsam"), a mysterious, mostly soft purring of cymbals, gongs, and low brass, that gets loud very quickly at the end, like Fafner waking. The 5 Pieces, Op. 10, move to an even more radical compression and at the same time raise orchestration from merely "clothing the musical idea" to a major structural component. The earlier comparison with Seurat is apt - little "dots" of sound from various instruments. If you have to be quick on the uptake with Op. 6, Op. 10 forces you to get quicker. The ideas are even shorter. Rarely does a player get more than four consecutive notes. Nevertheless, the resultant textures are so arresting, so beautiful, so precisely built, so mercurial, that they compete with what we normally consider the musical point. The trick is to catch both, and it may take you (as it did me) several listenings. Since only one of the five pieces lasts longer than a minute, Webern doesn't ask a lot.

Webern's Symphony I admit rough going. It is both atonal and serial. But it's real difficulty lies in Webern taking his musical "dots" even further. The "phrases" (so short, you really can't call them phrases) assigned to each instrument often consist of one or two notes. The effect is that of color constantly merging into other colors. Very rarely do you hear a violent contrast of succeeding textures. But, again, you must still pay attention to the basic musical material as well as to the "color narrative." It's trying to do both at once that I believe constitutes the main hurdle a listener has to surmount. Webern lays out the work in two movements. The first, so Calum MacDonald tells me, is a double canon in contrary motion. Well, with all respect, big deal. I doubt this means much to a listener wanting to get a handle on the piece. It's one of those points you come to appreciate once you already know much of the work. I believe one does better to concentrate on frequently-used intervals, like the falling and rising sixths of the first movement. In this way, pattern gradually becomes more clear. The second movement, a set of variations, is consequently a little easier, though still no walk in the park. I think that a performance which builds the longest line possible from the fragments - that isn't afraid of a little schmaltz with this music - does the music the greatest service.

Webern's orchestration of Bach's "fuga ricercata à 6" from The Musical Offering surely counts as one of the most remarkable musical arrangements of anything. It also provides great insight into Webern's compositional habits and into his emotional world by showing his methods applied to a traditional work. Again, the orchestration is both pointillist and more structurally important than usual. Again, we must pay equal attention both to the musical "matter" and to the orchestration. What we get in general is Bach's musical line shifting spectrally as it progresses. Webern takes advantage of color ambiguities between instruments - the fact that a trumpet in certain cases can sound like a French horn or an oboe, for example. The idea is to follow each appearance of Bach's "kingly theme" like a thread of light through a wood and ride the shift of color. Robert Craft, though I admit a brilliant musician, butchered this piece in his pioneer complete Webern traversal because he refused to acknowledge this point. He perversely emphasized the differences rather than the similarities of timbre between instruments and even wrote an elaborate justification of this wrong-headedness. The result was choppy. No musical line seemed to lead anywhere (except in your memory of the original Bach). It was all hacked short, like a bad haircut. You could sense an almost total cluelessness as to the effect Webern was after, and this carried over to other Webern pieces. Imagine my surprise when I finally heard the score played sympathetically and well (by a student orchestra, incidentally).

The Op. 30 Variations represent for me Webern's greatest orchestral achievement. Again, for years the only recording was Craft's, but somehow I finally embraced the work anyway. There's lots to admire - from the characteristically elegant and original textures and colors to the tightness of the argument. Unlike most "normal" music, however, the work doesn't deal in "songs" or "themes." As I've said, I studied the piece from a dodecaphonic, serial point of view, which yields some remarkable insights into the work, but I don't think such an exclusive adherence necessary. It operates effectively at a much more basic level - that of characteristic intervals and gestures, particularly the downward major sixth and (its isomer) the upward minor third. Webern's invention with just those two elements should amaze you. Incidentally, the piece influenced post-war composers, a lot of whom couldn't come up with original gestures of their own. Some of the features of Webern's music became hackneyed, due to an imaginative lack on the part of some followers. In Webern's own music, however, the ideas retain their incisiveness.

Webern's music needs a precise band. The Cleveland Orchestra's precision is legendary. But that's not all Webern needs. A sympathetic conductor must feel the emotion behind all that precision. This kind of music - and Schoenberg's and Berg's as well - is for me Dohnányi's musical meat. He loves Expressionism and its offshoots. Even in something as fleeting as the opening violin solo in the third of the 6 Pieces, one can hear not only the commitment of the player, but the transfer of that commitment and heartbreaking warmth to the rest of the movement. That, it seems to me, is something nurtured by a conductor. Consequently, we have for me a landmark recording of this very misunderstood composer. Boulez's set certainly improves upon Craft's, but Boulez as a conductor has become primarily a colorist. He beautifully reconstitutes Webern's textures, but he lacks Dohnányi's emotional intensity. Again, Webern's music balances color and matter. The trick is to deal with both simultaneously. In addition, Dohnányi habitually goes for the long line, a key to mitigating the fragmentariness of Webern.

I realize that little I can say will persuade those who've made up their minds. However, for those who haven't, give this disc the old college try. Recorded sound is superb.

Copyright © 2001, Steve Schwartz