Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartet No. 1. Four Canons
Fred Sherry Str Qrt &
NAXOS 8.557534 (77:33)
is sometimes paired on records with his String Trio, op. 45, an excellent work but one from a much later period, when the composer had already become firmly entrenched in his
12-tone rut. Here, it is very sensibly coupled with the First String Quartet of 1904–05, an excellent work which, though atonal in places, still has many features akin to his late tonal period. Indeed, there is much in the Quartet that, although unmistakably Schoenbergian, might have been influenced to some extent by the experiments of Bartók. I also found it fascinating that both of these early works were premiered by Arnold Rosé’s famous string quartet (obviously with two extra players in the case of
) at the instigation of Gustav Mahler.
One of the features of this First Quartet which is so different from later Schoenberg is its strong rhythmic sense. Yes, there are indeed passages where the rhythm becomes fragmented and even somewhat obscured, but by and large the music is propelled by an almost ferocious forward momentum, quite different from the rhythmically ambiguous and amorphous music of his maturity. The liner notes indicate some of the varied emotions that the composer attributed to the first movement:
(1) a) Revolt, Defiance; b) Longing; c) Rapture.
(2) a) Dejection; Despair; Fear of being engulfed; unaccustomed feelings of love, desire to be wholly
b) Comfort, Relief (She and He).
c) New outbreak; Dejection, Despair; and
d) Transition to
(3) Struggle of all the motives with the determination to begin a new life,
e) Mild disagreement.
Well, that’s quite an emotional gamut to run, and I find it a little strange … well, OK,
strange … that a composer who plunges headlong emotionally into “Revolt, Defiance, Dejection, Despair” ends up the movement with “mild disagreement”! But hey, that was Arnie Schoenberg, a bit of an odd duck to say the least.
The Fred Sherry Quartet plays this music with incredible energy and passionate emotional commitment, which is really the only way to play Schoenberg. I’ve always found it a bit odd that a composer so closely identified with what you would certainly identify as a cerebral reorganization of music (the 12-tone system) was normally a composer of extremely strong
in music. There is scarcely a Schoenberg score, with the possible exception of
(which was, after all, a special case and a bit of a one-off), that does not suck the listener into the vortex of extremely strong emotions. I must, however, be honest and say that, to my ears the somewhat jumbled juxtaposition of themes in the last movement left a bad impression on me.
like the composer’s early orchestral score
Pelleas und Melisande,
is so well known nowadays—and generally well-liked—that it seems incredible that it should have caused such a scandal when it was first premiered, in 1903. However, as the composer himself admitted, it soon became very successful, and ironically it was used as a club to hit the composer over the head with when his more outré pieces became known. Here the Sherry Quartet is expanded with the addition of second violist Yura Lee and second cellist Michael Nicolas. Their treatment of this score is rather more abrasive, less plush than one hears, for instance, from the Juilliard String Quartet with special guests Walter Trampler and Yo-Yo Ma on Sony Classical, where the late Romantic elements of the score are emphasized. Here, one hears the harshness of some of the dissonances much more clearly because the playing, for the most part, has a very sharp profile with strongly-accented rhythms. It’s so rare to hear an original interpretation of this piece, however, that one listens eagerly to every change of key and color in this performance; the end result is remarkable and rewarding, particularly in the extraordinarily dark colors they are able to produce in it.
The Four Canons are really excellent music, and are hereby recommended to those who feel that Schoenberg completely “abandoned” his earlier compositional style once he turned to the 12-tone system. The CD box insert denotes that they were composed between 1905 and 1949, but that apparently applies to the complete group of 30 Canons from which these were selected; the four given here were all completed during his mature period: Canon XIX in March 1934, Canon XXV in 1938, Canon XXVII in June 1943, and Canon XXVIII in March 1945. The music, despite its modernist harmonic touches, is quite understandable in terms of its construction and development. In other words, it is still rather accessible when compared to such works as
Moses und Aron
A Survivor from Warsaw.
I really enjoyed these pieces and the Sherry Quartet’s performances of them.
As a final word, I must ask why an album by the Fred Sherry Quartet and Sextet is identified on the packaging as being part of the
Robert Craft Collection
. I certainly understand Craft’s recent connection with Naxos and appreciate the fact that they have bought and reissued several of his recordings from the 1990s in addition to putting out new ones, but since he didn’t conduct the Sextet in this performance of
why is it part of “his” collection? Why not, more sensibly,
The Schoenberg Collection
? Inquiring minds want to know!
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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