At the end of last week, PENTATONE MUSIC released a new recording that presents two contrasting views of Arnold Schoenberg as a music-maker. Schoenberg the pioneering composer who sought out a new approach to syntactic organization that did not depend upon a tonal center is represented by his Opus 34, “Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene” (accompanying music to a film scene), composed in 1930, after he had begun exploring the expressive capacity of this twelve-tone method. However, on this album Opus 34 is preceded by Schoenberg’s orchestration of Johannes Brahms Opus 25 piano quartet in G minor, an arrangement he prepared in 1937, after he had become a Professor at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
Because there is such a strong tendency to concentrate on Schoenberg as a composer of “difficult” music, we tend to overlook the breadth of his understanding and appreciation of music history. Yet Fundamentals of Musical Composition, the realization of Schoenberg’s plan for a textbook on free composition edited by Gerald Strang with the collaboration of Leonard Stein and based on his teaching experiences at both UCLA and the University of Southern California, makes it clear from the outset that the student is expected to have a thorough knowledge of the piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven. Furthermore, in that same time frame, Schoenberg delivered a lecture in 1947 on the “progressive” nature of Brahms’ music, which also includes penetrating insights into the work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (The text of this lecture can be found in the collection, Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, edited by Stein.)
However, long before giving that lecture, Schoenberg took the trouble to share his thoughts about his orchestration of Brahms shortly after the work was first performed in Los Angeles on May 7, 1938. In a letter to Alfred Frankenstein at the San Francisco Chronicle, he gave his reasons for making the arrangement as an enumerated list:
- “I like this piece.”
- “It is seldom played.”
- “It is always very badly played, because the better the pianist, the louder he plays and you hear nothing from the strings. I wanted once to hear everything, and this I achieved.”
At the very least, Schoenberg got his priorities right. There is much to like in this music; and, at the time Schoenberg prepared his orchestration, there was little interest in chamber music beyond an awareness of the Budapest String Quartet playing the Beethoven quartets. However, things have changed so much since then that one is more likely to find a first-rate performance of Opus 25 as chamber music than to find a satisfying account of Schoenberg’s arrangement.
On this new recording Marc Albrecht conducts the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. At the very least he has done an excellent job of satisfying Schoenberg’s goal of allowing the listener “to hear everything.” How much this is due to Albrecht’s keen sense of balance and how much is a product of highly attentive postproduction may never be resolved. Most likely it is the result of excellent teamwork between conductor and engineers, setting a standard that deserves to be honored by any endeavor to produce a recording worthy of serious listening.
Nevertheless, while Albrecht’s interpretation may have been true to the letter of Schoenberg’s score, it is unclear that the spirit of Brahms’ rhetoric was given equal respect. While there are definitely moments that sparkle and dazzle the listener from time to time, these are, alas, only occasional events over the course of the entire four-movement composition. Too much of the reading is, ultimately, too matter-of-fact, if not downright bloodless. When compared with recent performances and recordings of this composition performed as chamber music, full of surprises where one least expects them and rising to a fevered pitch in the final movement, Albrecht’s reading leaves one wondering if Schoenberg’s exercise is still necessary.
On the other hand, where Schoenberg’s Opus 34 is concerned, there really are not many options. The only alternative listed on Amazon.com is an old recording of Pierre Boulez back from his days with Columbia (released on CD under the Sony Classics label). However, while Columbia tried very hard to establish itself as a flagship of recorded modernism, the “flesh” of its products never rose to the “spirit” of its willingness. Listeners had to wait for Boulez to make the move over to Deutsche Grammophon before they could appreciate his perceptive approach to Schoenberg. Unfortunately, Opus 34 was not one of the Schoenberg compositions that Boulez recorded for Deutsche Grammophon.
The result is that, even if Albrecht was more concerned with “letter” than with “spirit” in his reading of Opus 34, the benefits of a skilled production team are as evident on this nine-minute track as they are in the recording of orchestrated Brahms. Schoenberg did not have a specific film in mind for this short piece. The accompanying booklet suggests that the music “can be regarded as a psychogram of three different moods: ‘Threatening danger,’ ‘Fear,’ and ‘Catastrophe.’” One can definitely appreciate the expressive approach to these moods on this recording, which is sufficient to make for a satisfying listening experience.