Five Movements, Op.5
Six Pieces, Op.6
Five Pieces, Op.10
Ulster Orchestra conducted by Takuo Yuasa
CD No: NAXOS 8.554841 Duration: Reviewed: December 2001
Webern on CD
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Maybe, just maybe, Austrian-born Anton Webern (1883-1945) is the most forbidding composer of the last century to the man in the street. To that gentleman here is a cordial invitation to kick that notion into touch by spending a fiver and trying the music out, in comfort, at home. It shouldnt be difficult with the Passacaglia Weberns longest continuous orchestral piece (10 minutes) of the 31 works he assigned opus numbers to given its traditional form, colourful use of a large orchestra and melodic centring. The key, and Passacaglia is tonal, is not to anticipate a Brahms-like process and culmination although as my classicalsource.com colleague, Richard Whitehouse, relates in his booklet notes, the strict, often austere logic recalls Brahms but to be aware of how rigorous Webern is in his distilling of essentials, taking them to climax, and eventual uncertainty. From that harmonic void, Webern underwent a sea-change to atonalism, further refining his musical agenda. Thereafter his music is compressed but not miniature; its very brevity encloses a world where every note, colour and inflexion is a microcosm of something bigger meta-essentials if you will.
Weberns is perfect music, the crafting and relating of every detail the product of a watchmakers precision. Music in condensed form doesnt compromise definable structures; the listener is required to hang on every note for itself and its place in the whole. This isnt antiseptic music either, there is plenty of expression; nor is there a lack of colour percussion, harp, mandolin, wind, brass and strings: a full orchestra used with amazing economy and variety.
Op.5 was originally for string quartet, heard here in the composers transcription for string orchestra. Op.6 is for full orchestra as revised in 1928 the original scoring called for vast forces and contains as the Fourth Piece a funeral march of remarkable imagination that reaches a thrilling, desperate culmination. The Op.10 set is brevity incarnated, contrasting timbres and thoughtful aphorisms compel attention. The Symphony has a symphonic gelling if not a symphonys conventional length. The Variations concentrate a traditional form into epigrammatic cohesion.
Given the smallish forces of Op.10, it might have been a good idea to also include the Concerto for nine instruments, Op.24. Perhaps, as this release should attract a new audience for Webern, Im Sommerwind, his romantic Straussian/Wagnerian Idyll would have been a useful foil to the four-year-later 1908 Passacaglia. The performances here are good well balanced, poised and confident if not matching the acute precision of Boulez (DG and Sony), the hyper-refinement of Karajan (DG) or the conviction of Dohnanyi (Decca). The recording, while detail-vivid, is somewhat hard-edged in loud passages and I would have welcomed an acoustic with less space.
Webern died when he nipped out for a quick cigarette after curfew and was shot by an American soldier thus proving that smoking can indeed damage your health. Leaving aside suggestions that the GI was a music-lover, my attempt at humour is intended to attract doubters and intimate that Weberns music is rather more than calculated notation theres wit, self-belief and a tangible delight in being able to say so much with so little. It was Dohnanyi that coupled Mozart with Webern on CD; the reason, I think, is because with both composers every note counts and means something. Webern has a claim to be the twentieth-centurys most influential composer. Find out why.