Webern on CD

0 of 5 stars

Passacaglia, Op.1
Five Movements, Op.5
Six Pieces, Op.6
Five Pieces, Op.10
Symphony, Op.21
Variations, Op.30

Ulster Orchestra conducted by Takuo Yuasa

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: December 2001
CD No: NAXOS 8.554841

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 shouldn’t be difficult with the Passacaglia – Webern’s 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 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.

Webern’s is perfect music, the crafting and relating of every detail the product of a watchmaker’s precision. Music in condensed form doesn’t compromise definable structures; the listener is required to hang on every note – for itself and its place in the whole. This isn’t 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 composer’s 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 symphony’s ’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 Webern’s music is rather more than calculated notation – there’s 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-century’s most influential composer. Find out why.

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