Sunday, February 23, 2020

Isabelle Faust’s New Schoenberg Album

courtesy of PIAS

This coming Friday harmonia mundi will release its latest “Isabelle Faust and friends” album. I feel as if I have been following Faust’s work almost as long as I have been writing about music. I have encountered her playing music for violin unaccompanied, serving as a concerto soloist, and performing in chamber music groups of different sizes. That latter category includes membership in a trio with cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexander Melnikov, a group that I documented when they performed in Herbst Theatre at the beginning of this month. I have not followed her recording career thoroughly, but I have definitely been drawn to some of her more adventurous undertakings. The most recent of these involved the release of an album presenting a thoroughly engaging account of Franz Schubert’s D. 803 octet in F major.

Faust’s latest recording could not be more different. The entire album presents two decidedly different compositions by Arnold Schoenberg. The more familiar of these is his Opus 4 sextet given the title “Verklärte Nacht” (transfigured night), so named because it delivers what amounts to a verse-by-verse musical interpretation of a poem by Richard Dehmel that has the same title. As the opus number suggests, this is an early composition, tonal but rich in chromaticism. At the other end of Schoenberg’s career, the album begins with his Opus 36 violin concerto, based on the composer’s twelve-tone technique but taking a neoclassical approach to thematic structure. As may be expected, is currently taking pre-orders for this new album.

The structure of the violin concerto is derived from a single twelve-tone row:

When Columbia released its first recording of the concerto, it included a twelve-by-twelve array of pitch class labels that was intended to summarize all “permissible” statements of the row. The pitch classes of the row itself (A B-flat E-flat B E F-sharp C C-sharp G A-flat D F) constituted the first horizontal row. The first vertical row descended from the A and presented the inversion of the row, replacing rising intervals with those descending by the same amount and vice versa. The array could then be completed by taking each pitch class in that vertical row to specify a transposition of the entire row. The resulting grid thus presented twelve horizontal and twelve vertical rows, reach of which could be read forwards or backwards, meaning that there are 48 possible ways in which the row may be stated.

Columbia’s “mathematical” approach to Schoenberg’s technique (which may well have been due to input from Milton Babbitt) could easily be the most counterproductive measure in any attempt to encourage listeners to accept Schoenberg’s music. We know from a caustic letter that Schoenberg wrote to René Leibowitz that the composer abhorred such an approach. As Schoenberg put it in that letter:
I do not compose principles, but music.
Sadly between the misguided efforts of Babbitt as a theorist and Robert Craft as a conductor, it did not take long for even the most curious of listeners to be put off by all-things-Schoenberg.

In my own personal development, it took me quite some time to find a more constructive handle to bring to Schoenberg’s efforts to work with alternatives to traditional tonality. My own turning point took place in the Eighties when my wife and I would regularly visit Santa Fe to see the summer opera productions. There was a chamber music festival taking place at the same time, which offered free admission to rehearsals during the day. This led to my turning pages for pianist Ursula Oppens one afternoon when she was accompanying violinist György Pauk to prepare a performance of Schoenberg’s Opus 47 Phantasy.

I volunteered for this task assuming that I would need to follow the score to make sense of the music. To be fair, there were any number of times when my eyes were providing better guidance than my ears did. However, on the brink of one tempo change, I heard Pauk say, “Now we dance!” That became my bolt from the blue. There was no reason not to dance to that music and every reason to do so; and since that afternoon I have always let my ears (and occasionally muscular reactions) guide my way.

The reason for this long-winded anecdote is that the beginning of the final (third) movement of the Opus 36 violin concerto has become one of the clearest now-we-dance moments I have encountered. Performing with Daniel Harding conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Faust clearly knew consistently how to find the spirit behind all three movements of this concerto without getting bogged down in the flood of marks on paper or the mathematical matrix intended to bring clarity to all of those marks. One might say that this is a performance that keeps the listener focused on the concerto regardless of any opinions formed about the composer; but, with the benefit of that focus, one might even have a bit of fun with the listening experience!

In the Opus 4 performance Faust leads a sextet in which she is again joined by Queyras. Anne Katharina Schreiber is the other violinist, and Christian Poltéra is the other cellist. The two violists are Antoine Tamestit and Danusha Waskiewicz. (Both Schreiber and Waskiewicz performed with Faust on her Schubert octet album.)

From a semantic point of view, I rather like the fact that the booklet presents an English translation of Dehmel’s poem, clearly marking off the five sections that correspond to the five tracks (played without interruption) of the recording. In contrast to Columbia’s sterile approach to packaging the Opus 36 concerto, the booklet allows the engaged listener to appreciate just how attentive Schoenberg was to the structural and semantic foundations of Dehmel’s text. It goes without saying that Faust and her colleagues bring a sufficiently solid account of Schoenberg’s score to engage any listener willing to be engaged.

I have had the good fortune to listen to Opus 4 performed by more sextets than I am capable of enumerating. I still feel that there is no substitute to being in the presence of a performance, allowing the eyes to augment all the data being acquired through the ears. For that matter, awareness of the physical movement of the players adds yet another data stream to contribute to the sensemaking process. This makes listening to a recording a far more limited experience. Nevertheless, a new recording can bring with it new perspectives on such matters as phrasing and levels of the dynamics; and, since it is unlikely that I shall encounter all six of the musicians on this album in a performance of Opus 4, I have no trouble making the best of what I have at my disposal!

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