Prom Chamber Music 4: 13th August 2001

Busoni, arr. Stein
Berceuse élégiaque, Op.42
Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op.5
Schoenberg, arr. Webern
Chamber Symphony No.1 in E, Op.9
Johann Strauss II, arr. Schoenberg
Waltz – Roses from the South

Michael Collins (clarinet)
John Constable (piano)

London Sinfonietta conducted by Diego Masson

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Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 August, 2001
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

With the 50th anniversary of Schoenberg’s death being marked in some depth at this year’s Proms, what better than to turn one of the weekly Proms Chamber Music recitals into a programme such as might have been given by the Society for Private Musical Performances?

Founded by Schoenberg in Vienna during 1918, the Society aimed to promote new music by putting on concerts of chamber works and transcriptions. Rehearsals were extensive, admission upon donation, and professional critics were banned. The result, a series in which elitism was divorced from exclusivity, was in many respects a blueprint for what was to follow later in the century, not least in the Society’s continual lack of funds!

One of the most heartening aspects of the Society’s programming was its very openness. Guardedly neutral with regard to the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern), Busoni and Schoenberg shared a respect, touched by scepticism, towards each other. The former’s Berceuse élégiaque, a masterpiece of condensed, rarefied emotion, loses something of its atmosphere but little of its coherence in the chamber transcription by Erwin Stein (one of many supervised by Schoenberg, and for long attributed to him).

It made sense to follow this with the Op.5 pieces of Berg – pithy and compressed while retaining the lyricism and emotional range that characterises his music at all stages, to which Michael Collins and John Constable infused a high degree of coherence, stressing the vestigial sonata outline and the motivic follow-through which informs these recalcitrant miniatures.

Clarity of design is equally apparent in Webern’s quintet (piano, violin, cello, flute and clarinet) transcription of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, a fete of thematic and textural reduction that demonstrates the analytic mind in full flight (would that all analyses were this revealing!). As with the Busoni, the soundworld of the original, its strategic imbalance of wind and strings, is sacrificed but without undermining cumulative intensity – at least in the Sinfonietta’s incisive and expressively alert performance.

To finish, Schoenberg in unbuttoned mood. His transcription of Roses from the South was his contribution to a fund-raising concert in which all three of the ’holy trinity’ presented Strauss arrangements. It’s easy to take Schoenberg out of his Viennese context and place him in some otherworldly modernist vacuum. Yet here was a composer acutely conscious of belonging to a tradition, one which featured the Strauss family as much as it did Brahms or Wagner. There’s no disparity here, though the tongue-in-cheek use of the harmonium is guaranteed to raise eyebrows – critics excepted, of course!

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Sunday, 19 August, at 1 o’clock

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