At the middle of last month, Project Odradek, a non-profit, artist-controlled, democratic classical cooperative, released its second album featuring Italian pianist Pina Napolitano playing music by Arnold Schoenberg. The first had been released in February of 2013 and consisted of Schoenberg’s complete works for solo piano. On the new album she plays Schoenberg’s only concerto for piano and orchestra (Opus 42), which he composed in 1942 and turned out to be his last major work for orchestra. Napolitano plays with the (Latvian) Liepāja Symphony Orchestra conducted by its chief conductor, Atvars Lakstīgala.
(It is probably worth warning readers to be careful in following the above hyperlink for the new album. The album as a whole was given the title Elegy, and Amazon.com may have confused it with a movie soundtrack album also called Elegy! All of the user comments on the Amazon Web page are about the soundtrack album, but the cover image shows Napolitano. Had the tracks been listed, it would have been easier to confirm that this Web page really is for the new Odradek release; but it would appear that Amazon may be getting downright sloppy in how they organize their database of offerings!)
In many ways Schoenberg’s concerto picks up where the collection of his solo piano music concludes, even if there is a gap of about eleven years between the concerto and the latest composition on Napolitano’s solo album. The listener who has tried to follow the full Schoenberg canon is likely to get the feeling that in Opus 42 Schoenberg had finally found a comfort zone for the grammatical constraints of his twelve-tone technique. While the technique may have been the result of his efforts to “emancipate the dissonance” over longer and longer durations, the concerto seems less about liberation from the constraints of dissonance and more about getting beyond the dominant-tonic cadence as a significant syntactic marker. If the Opus 25 piano suite established itself by casting familiar rhythms in new progressions (one cannot really call them “harmonic” progressions), in Opus 42 Schoenberg finally seems to have found ways to compose themes that allow for embellishment and other techniques of development and then frame them in structures that have their own characteristic strategies for establishing finality. The result is one of Schoenberg’s most compelling gestures of nostalgia since the conclusion of his Opus 21 Pierrot Lunaire.
It was probably this context of nostalgia that led to Napolitano coupling Schoenberg’s concerto with Béla Bartók’s third piano concerto. Bartók knew he was dying when he composed this concerto. He wanted to make sure that his widow would be able to provide for herself by maintaining her career as a concert pianist, so he made particular effort to leave her with a new addition to the repertoire that might have more popular appeal when compared with the many thorny dissonances of the first two concertos. Thus it would be fair to say that the entire album is framed by some of Napolitano’s most affectionate approaches to her instrument, suggesting that both of these concertos stand as fond memories of composers with reputations for “difficult music” during their respective lifetimes.
The concertos are separated by two instrumental selections. The first of these is Schoenberg’s Opus 34, which he titled “Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene” (accompanying music to a film scene). This piece is more characteristic of the angst-ridden abstract expressionism that tends to be associated with Schoenberg. The music itself was never intended for a particular film, which means that it can basically be taken as an abstract exercise in the rhetoric of film scores. Lakstīgala seems to have had no difficulty grasping the nature of that rhetoric and engaging it in his interpretation of Opus 34, offering up a highly successful account of what may be called “music for the imagination.”
Rhetorical implications are more explicit in the second instrumental offering, Ernst Krenek’s Opus 105, which he called a “Symphonic Elegy” for string orchestra. This is music that shifts from the abstract connotations of Schoenberg’s Opus 34 to more concrete denotation, since Krenek wrote it to commemorate the death of Anton Webern. However, while its intention may have been memorial, Krenek does not attempt to summon up associations with Webern’s own music. Rather, this elegy is his own personal (and clearly heartfelt) statement. Lakstīgala should be thanked for reminding listeners that Krenek’s music really does not deserve to be as neglected as it has become.