Having written this past weekend about the breadth of modernists active both before and during the Second Viennese School achievements of Arnold Schoenberg and his two best students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern, represented on the Simon Rattle: The CBSO years CD collection, it is now necessary to focus on the Second Viennese School itself. Unfortunately, the most distinguishing feature of this portion of the collection is how small it is. Both Berg and Webern are represented by only a single composition on a CD that they share with Schoenberg. The only all-Schoenberg CD couples his Opus 17 one-act opera “Erwartung” (expectation) with his Opus 31 “Variations for Orchestra.” Finally, Schoenberg’s orchestration of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 25 piano quartet in G minor begins a CD on which it is followed by the first movement of Gustav Mahler’s sixth symphony.
This is not particularly fair to either Schoenberg or his students. It overlooks the early work in which each of them explored possibilities for extending the expressiveness of tonality. (In this respect it is interesting that one of Rattle’s first recordings after his move to Berlin was of Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, which came close to driving in the nails of the coffin for the burial of tonality.) Instead, Rattle’s emphasis with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) was primarily on music that departed from the conventions of harmonic progress. Thus, there are two instances of what George Perle called “free” atonality, which amounts to “experimental” efforts that preceded Schoenberg’s “dodecaphonic” approach to working with all twelve chromatic pitches equally through the discipline of the twelve-tone “row.” The one “purely” dodecaphonic composition is Schoenberg’s first, his Opus 31. The only Berg composition is his “Lulu Suite,” which is basically a “progress report” that he wrote while working on Lulu, the three-act opera that was not completed during his lifetime. This took Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique as a point of departure but found new ways to apply it for dramatic purposes. In addition, there were portions of the opera in which Berg departed from Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic syntax, replacing it with his own structural disciplines. These two twelve-tone selections complement three “free” atonal pieces, Schoenberg’s Opus 17 “Erwartung,” his Opus 16 set of five orchestral pieces, and Webern’s Opus 6 set of six orchestral pieces.
If this portion of the collection is relatively short in duration, it still reflects considerable attention from Rattle in the performances he prepared with CBSO. Schoenberg clearly appreciated that a departure from conventional harmonic progression would have a disquieting effect on many (most?) listeners. There is thus a similarly disquieting rhetoric that one encounters throughout all of the pieces included (except for the Brahms orchestration). Even those compositions with the most abstract titles (such as “pieces”) have visceral qualities that Rattle readily identifies and exploits. This is probably most evident in Schoenberg’s Opus 31, in which it is barely possible to apprehend the theme as such, or even the presence of the B-A-C-H motif that Schoenberg incorporated. The result is that listening to a piece like this can, indeed, be very disorienting; but Rattle approaches it with a technique that turns disorientation from a liability into a rather daring asset.
The Brahms orchestration, on the other hand, is a delightful reminder that Schoenberg could have a sense of humor. It is important to remember that, when there was a prevailing tendency to dismiss Brahms as old-fashioned (particularly when comparing his music to the work of Richard Wagner), Schoenberg appreciated that Brahms’ music was actually strikingly progressive; and in 1947 he organized his thoughts into a lecture that he delivered on that topic. The orchestration was prepared in 1937, after which he sent a letter to Alfred Frankenstein at the San Francisco Chronicle basically saying that he wrote the orchestration because the music never seemed to get a fair shake from chamber music players.
It is hard to imagine that Schoenberg was not aware of Leopold Stokowski’s “adventures” in orchestration at that time. (Stokowski had given the first American performance of Gurre-Lieder in 1932.) Indeed, it could well be that Stokowski had set a bar for over-the-top approaches to instrumentation that Schoenberg took as a challenge to vault. The result is a rethinking of Brahms that clearly honors the source but also elicits a wide range of responses from knowing smiles to outright belly-laughs. Rattle’s interest in Schoenberg’s treatment of Brahms reminds us of a more human side of Schoenberg’s character, and its inclusion in this collection is most welcome.