One expects Russell Keable and the Kensington Symphony Orchestra, now in its sixty-second season, to put on bold, adventurous programmes that few of the 'big five' in London would either think of or get away with. Central to this concert was Arnold Schoenberg – Schoenberg the classicist, the romantic, the progressive, a man whose profundity you'd never question, the serious high-mindedness of whom defined for many the first half of the twentieth-century. Schoenberg the innovator. Schoenberg the self-proclaimed “natural continuator of a correctly understood, good, old tradition.”
The only original work of the evening, the expressionist, pantonal Five Pieces Opus 16 (following the 1909 version, richer orchestrally than the 1922 and 1949 revisions), was also the earliest chronologically, dating from the radical time of Das Buch der hängenden Gärten and Erwartung. Premiered by Henry Wood at the 1912 London Proms (now there was a brave man – Richard Strauss declined the challenge, reluctant to risk Berlin conservatism), the forces are large, calling for quadruple woodwind and six horns. Disconnected asteroids of sound and aura: “That is all they are about”, Schoenberg maintained, “absolutely not symphonic – precisely the opposite – no architecture, no structure. Merely a bright, uninterrupted interchange of colours, rhythms and moods."
Tersely incised shavings, lofty, jagged slabs hewn from quarries, music eschewing fin de siècle magma – Schoenberg the Wanderer voyaging the nerve-ways and spectra of mind and body, with the vastness of a Jovian orchestra at his disposal, to unleash, refine or redefine but never to abuse. The audacity of it all – the snarls and throb of 'Premonitions', the time-warp of 'Yesteryears', the melody of timbre and texture in the one kaleidoscopically changing chord of 'Farben – Summer Morning by a Lake (Colours)', the pre-Stravinsky Petrushka premonitions in 'Peripetia', the weighted textures yet pliant momentum of 'The Obligatory Recitative' – still shocks. Not all is alien, though. Penetrate deep enough and references to a past, “ciphers of autobiography”, roots, shards of once-familiar patterns (intervallic, rhythmic) are for the finding. Less in the (ambiguous) titles Schoenberg added at his publisher's request. More in those fleeting strands and inflections, hard to pin down but subjectively ambient, that flashback to the cliff-edge neuroses, fears and subtexts of the human condition which ten years before had given us Verklärte Nacht, later Pelleas und Melisande. The programme cover reproduced a detail from Kandinsky's Composition VII of 1913 – a finely judged visual complexity to complement the aural one.
Contrasting the imperialism (and fuller doublings) of Stokowski's or Wood's Bach transcriptions, Schoenberg's 'St Anne' (1928), first performed under Webern, is a leaner, more registrally terraced homage, making for a cumulatively commanding overview crowned with a final E-flat prolongation Masonic rather than Romantic in character. 'Period' orchestration never having been a Schoenberg priority, the arrangement is one that deals largely in distilling line, structure and polyphony through different balances and intensities of 'registration', the arsenal of 'stops' including harp, celesta and glockenspiel plus a variety of unorthodox 'mixes', many retaining their identity even in the tuttis.
Dating from Schoenberg's American West Coast years, Brahms's G-minor Piano Quartet was arranged at the suggestion of Klemperer (1937), the result a powerful "self-conscious reorganization” in which the compositional scale and muscular gesturing of the chamber ensemble conception was given priority. In the best re-creative (Lisztian) sense this is a full-bodied, highly personalised translation of the essence and stresses underlying the original. What Schoenberg gives us is a grand, severely demanding/exposing 'symphony' – “Brahms's Fifth” – for virtuoso forces (and some Brahms would never have imagined – glockenspiel and xylophone for instance), with the Finale transformed into a ferocious Mazeppa/Hungarian stampede, gypsy violin and clarinet never far away but offset in an unsentimentalised place denser and cooler, more iron-clad, less prepared to yield, than Brahms had ever been wont to journey.
Come the end of the 1930s, life, tennis and pâtisseries in Los Angeles may have been agreeable. But – the world brought to its knees through war, empires lost, depression ... revolution, repression, persecution in the arena - several of the orchestrally darker or more garish cameos (the development of the first movement; the allusive, percussive Stechmarsch of the third, less ceremonial than military) urge a wider psycho-cinematic message where the angst of the young Brahms post-Schumann becomes in Schoenberg's hands, eighty years on, a metaphor for the hour: the fate of Europe if not its full shock is here and now and about to erupt.
The KSO is a remarkable band of non-professionals. The woodwind and brass sections, horns in magnificent voice, sailed through the evening with character and confidence. Occasionally one wanted more from the strings – the violins were a little under-nourished, and the bass end, despite twelve cellos (outnumbering violas), was on the light side. There were many ensembles and solos, passing chamber moments, to relish.
Keable is an economical unfussy conductor, well-suited to the task, his left-hand expressive without becoming excessive. His grasp of Magyar nuance, swagger and primás confrontation may not always have been ideally natural or idiomatic – in an effort to create abandonment and light a few fires there were some awkward gear changes in the Brahms – but his overall attention to balance and clean entries and finishes proved a strength scarcely to be faulted. Endings indeed, sonorously shaped, intoned and cadenced, were a recurrent feature of this concert. In the Bach, following a marginally undisciplined Prelude (not quite crisp enough in attack), he brought an uplifting rhythmic élan and dynamic gradation to the Fugue, the clarifying instrumentations of the three subjects – clarinets, strings, brass – articulated nobly and fearlessly.
Notwithstanding occasional indecisions from his players, otherwise committed and undaunted, Keable's objective direction, keenly watching every corner, ensured an often astonishing Five Pieces. Aggressions and aphorisms sparked, rampaged, died. 'Farben' cast its dawn spell. The last movement arrived home. “THAT's the sort of thing”, his teacher Norman Del Mar would have said approvingly.