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PERFORMING ARTS | Recordings

Making the Schoenberg Connection

July 01, 2001|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

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SCHOENBERG: Piano Concerto; Three Piano Pieces, Opus 11; Six Little Pieces, Opus 19; BERG: Piano Sonata; WEBERN: Variations. Mitsuko Uchida, piano; Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, conductor

Philips

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SCHOENBERG: Piano Concerto, Cello Concerto, Chamber Symphony No. 2, "Die Glckliche Hand" Christopher Oldfather, piano; Fred Sherry, piano; Mark Beesley, bass; Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft, conductor Koch International Classics

* * * SCHOENBERG/SCHUBERT: Piano pieces Thomas Larcher, piano ECM

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It is a Schoenberg year--the 50th anniversary of his death is July 13--but to many a concertgoer, that's nothing to celebrate. In the popular imagination, Schoenberg's name is still a symbol for the destruction of Classicism and Romanticism.

Still, Schoenberg--pioneering atonalist and 12-toner though he was--was never less than a devoted Classicist and an irrepressibly expressive Romantic. He worked in a broad range of styles and never lost a profound connection with the past. Most of all, his music inspires musicians today, tradition-bound ones and avant-gardists alike.

Consider Mitsuko Uchida and the Piano Concerto, a late 12-tone score but Classical in design and infectiously tuneful, once you acclimate to its idiom. She enlivens it with the same swagger of phrase, rhythmic combustion and cat-like concentration that make her a great Mozart and Schubert pianist. She also brings her astonishing verve to Schoenberg's early, ultra-Expressionist Three Pieces, Opus 11, as well as to the miniature Opus 19 pieces, Berg's Sonata and Webern's Variations for Piano. Boulez assures Uchida excellent support in the Concerto from the expertly balanced Clevelanders. The one drawback is the recorded sound, plush but distant and not as detailed as compulsively detailed music needs.

Robert Craft, who oversaw the first recorded overview of Schoenberg's music on LP some four decades ago (including a famous performance of the Piano Concerto with Glenn Gould), is once more involved in a multi-disc Schoenberg project. This is the seventh volume, and it offers an imaginative introduction to the variety of Schoenbergian styles.

In startling contrast to the Piano Concerto, played here with fluidity and warmth (though hardly Uchida's fire) by Christopher Oldfather, is the rarely heard Cello Concerto. For some reason, Schoenberg set out to update a dull early 18th century harpsichord concerto by the obscure composer Georg Matthias Monn. His idea was to remake it in the later 18th century style of Haydn, but he couldn't stop himself from going further, and his delightfully new harmonies, orchestrations and thematic development cause Monn's original material to veer into the 20th century. The solo part is next to impossible, but Fred Sherry makes it sound as though he had a wonderful time tackling it.

The relatively lightweight Chamber Symphony No. 2 (lightweight for the ever-intense Schoenberg, that is) and the ultra-Expressionistic mini-opera "Die Glckliche Hand" (Fate's Hand) complete this disc in slightly restrained performances.

Thomas Larcher has other points to make about Schoenberg. He alternates movements from Schoenberg's Opus 11 solo piano pieces with Schubert's three Piano Pieces in E-flat, D. 946. The experiment works up to a point. Larcher's introverted pianism (nearly 180 degrees from Uchida's immediacy) helps ease the stylistic jolts between atonality and tonality, between Schubert's leisurely developments and Schoenberg's density of ideas. As the ear picks up amazing coincidences of gestures, Schoenberg begins to sound age-old and Schubert brand new.

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"Bride of the Wind" soundtrack Renee Fleming, soprano; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano; Vienna Philharmonic, Pierre Boulez and Claudio Abbado, conductors Deutsche Grammophon * * * "The Man Who Cried" soundtrack Salvatore Licitra, tenor; Kronos Quartet; Taraf de Hadouks and others Sony Classical

Schoenberg (or at least his bald pate) finds his way into Bruce Beresford's biopic of Alma Mahler, "Bride of the Wind," but certainly not his music.

Instead, this stultifying costume drama is accompanied by excerpts from the symphonies of Alma's husband, by Stephen Endelman's original music (Hollywoodized Mahler) and by Endelman's arrangements of some Alma songs (enthusiastically sung by Renee Fleming). As Alma moves on, after Mahler's death in 1911, to other artist husbands and lovers (Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka and Franz Werfel), the music never follows the sensibilities of a progressing century but remains stuck on Mahler. The album has good Mahler sound bites, but that's about all.

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