Monday, August 29, 2016

Thomas Schultz Surveys All of Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Music at Old First

Yesterday afternoon at Old First Church, Thomas Schultz gave his second piano recital presenting the complete piano music by Arnold Schoenberg, the first having been given a week earlier at the Center for New Music. This amounted to five entries in the catalog of Schoenberg publications. Four of those entries (Opera 11, 19, 23, and 33) were described only as “piano pieces” (with the addition of the adjective “little” in Opus 19). Opus 25, on the other hand, was described as a suite.

Schultz was not shy about providing verbal introductions to these compositions. Considering that some of these pieces are now more that 100 years old, this provided an advantage worth noting. These compositions continue to be enigmatic, and some might even call them impenetrable. However, it would be fairer to say that all of them impose major challenges on the performer, simply because just about any rules a concert pianist follows in the interest of expressive interpretation are no longer applicable.

Between 1907 and 1908, prior to the composition of Opus 11 in 1909, Schoenberg composed his second string quartet (Opus 10 in F-sharp minor) whose last two movements require a soprano singing poems by Stefan George. The final movement begins with the line:
Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten.
I feel air from another planet
This seemed to be Schoenberg’s way of saying that he was no longer satisfied with the conventions (air) according to which music was being made. The next quarter century may be viewed as Schoenberg’s quest for the air he was seeking to breathe, and all of his solo piano compositions fit within that time frame.

In writing about music composed during this period, Virgil Thomson would try to frame the repertoire in terms of a new grammar for a new language. This is particularly appropriate for the so-called twelve-tone method, which was Schoenberg’s most systematic approach to avoiding the fundamental relationships of tonic and dominant in harmonic progressions. Among the piano pieces, only the Opus 33 pieces (composed separately in 1928 and 1931), are based on this method, the most explicit being the second (Opus 33b), which was written for publication in Henry Cowell’s New Music journal.

All the other piano pieces show Schoenberg in search of that “new air.” Those who require terminology to keep their thoughts in order tend to refer to these as results from Schoenberg’s “free atonality” period. It would be fairer to say that the first four sets of piano pieces come from a time when Schoenberg was experimenting with different approaches to organization, whether they involved emancipating dissonance, rethinking which principles were truly fundamental to counterpoint and harmonic progression, or questioning the larger scale of familiar architectures.

The Opus 25 is particularly interesting from an experimental point of view, since, for the most part, it takes on the “structural shells” that one encounters in the suites of Johann Sebastian Bach and then tries to seek out a new logic for how those shells should be filled. Schultz introduced this as one of Schoenberg’s wittiest compositions. However, that wit reveals itself only to those willing to tease out the many details in the score itself; and it is a major challenge for any performer to make those revelations evident to even the more sympathetic listeners. Schultz may not have succeeded over the course of the entire suite, but he managed to clue in his audience on at least a few of the music’s comic gestures.

Perhaps the most challenging element of the repertoire involves that “sense of an ending.” Particularly in Opus 19, where the six pieces are very brief and rests are abundant, about the only clue that one piece has ended and another begun came from Schultz turning a page or shifting his attention from the page on the left to the one on the right. This music came from a time when both Schoenberg and his pupil Anton Webern were cramming expressiveness of the highest order into durations that tended to stay under 90 seconds. However, the very idea that a piece of music should be no more than a single gesture (or maybe two or three) is still difficult for many of today’s audiences to grasp. Consider, then, that one of the goals of the twelve-tone method was to enable the composer to extend that particular approach to expressiveness to longer durations; and it should not be that all surprising that so much of this work is still greeted with perplexity.

For all that adversity, however, Schultz’ effort to bring this music to the attention of his Old First audience was well-informed, sincere, and, at least on a few occasions, compelling. His decision to follow the intermission break with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 117 of three intermezzi was a well-chosen “interruption” of Schoenberg’s journey. Schoenberg was a great champion of Brahms’ music and went as far as to make the case that he was a progressive at a time when most were dismissing him as old-fashioned. While Opus 117 did not figure significantly in Schoenberg’s writings about Brahms, Schultz’ approach to these three pieces, particularly the second, seemed to be well-informed by those progressive factors that Schoenberg had in mind.

More out of place were the selections of piece by Franz Liszt. “Nuages gris” (grey clouds) came closest to providing an example of Liszt’s own effort to depart from a tonal center late in his life; but the music itself would have been more suitable in a recital concentrating on the piano music of Claude Debussy. On the other hand the decision to conclude the recital with “Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este” (the fountains of the Villa d’Este), from the third “year” of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage), amounted to a whipped-cream-laden dessert served after an austere dinner designed to call attention to the unique flavors of a wide variety of vegetables. That is music that manages best when performed with other Liszt compositions.

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