Webern and the Second Viennese School @ the Queen Elizabeth Hall

29 January 2013

To the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the latest in the year-long Rest Is Noise festival. These early weeks are focusing on the composers of the Second Viennese School ie Schoenberg the father and Berg and Webern his students, who began to write their influential works in the years just before the Great War. If Schoenberg is the transitional figure who picks up late Romantic chromaticism and moves into the territory of pure atonality, his students began at that position and explored its ramifications. Berg was able to use atonality to build surprisingly large structures including his brilliant Violin Concerto and even two operas, ‘Wozzeck’ and ‘Lulu’. Webern, on the other hand, is famous in musical history for developing the ideas of atonality and serialism into works of astonishing compression and brevity. Many of his works are only a minute long, with no melody, no harmony, just the rigour of his mathematical application of the method of serialism.

I remember first learning about this and expecting the resulting music to be harsh and dissonant – and so being astonished to encounter the precise, crystalline structures of these micro-pieces, sharp and unearthly like stars in a cold sky.

The performance was by the London Sinfonietta with Baldur Brönnimann conductor, Sarah Gabriel soprano and Lightmap video design. Sarah’s singing was impassioned. She wore a stunning strapless dress in the first half, and another black velvet number in part two. The video was a continual projection in the background of b&w footage of pre-War Vienna and images of the composers, along with texts in German and English of the songs, quotes from the composers including one from Webern from which one word at a time slowly faded as the music played.

Videos at classical concerts seem to be the fashion – there was a video at Gavin Bryars’s Titanic, the film of Koyaanisqatsi at the Barbican, and during the other weekend’s Pierrot Lunaire at the Festival Hall they projected a loop of b&w images of the century.

It was interesting to hear Schoenberg’s orchestral pieces for the second time in a fortnight, in a different and more edgy arrangement. But both Berg and Schoenberg seem normal next to the other worldly miniaturism of Webern. No-one else has ever written so intensely. Every note is vital. In a post-concert panel discussion the conductor, Baldur Brönnimann, said it’s tricky to conduct because everything you do spoils it, it has such Platonic purity.

Discussion panel This after-concert panel was excellent, including an academic expert on Webern, Baldur the conductor, Peter the viola player and Netia Jones who produced the video. They all had interesting things to say. The viola player said the music is so intense because behind every phrase, behind every pair of notes, is the entire German tradition. The academic pointed out that Webern saw himself as a Romantic – his inspiration came from an obsessive worship of Nature and high mountains as well as mourning for his dead mother. In other words, as Baldur emphasises, the 1950s and 60s did Webern a disservice by making him the messiah of the new religion of atonality, performing his music as mathematically strict and antiseptic. Now, 50 years later, he said, we can see the music more fully, stripped of 60s ideology, as deriving directly from its Romantic German antecedents in its concern with expressivity, albeit taken to unprecedented heights.

My favourite work was the three little pieces for cello. It makes so much difference to see these works performed live. The drama and intensity of real performers producing these extraordinary sounds really hit you as they can’t on a recording.

Anton Webern: 3 Lieder
Arnold Schoenberg: 5 Orchestral Pieces, Op.16
Anton Webern: 6 Pieces for orchestra, Op.6
Anton Webern: 5 Pieces for small orchestra, Op.10
Anton Webern: 3 Volkstexte (Three Traditional Rhymes) for soprano & ensemble, Op.17
Anton Webern: Symphony, Op.21
Alban Berg: 4 Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op.5
Anton Webern: 3 Little Pieces for cello & piano, Op.11
Anton Webern: Concerto for 9 instruments, Op.24

Black and white photo of Anton Webern

Anton Webern (1883-1945) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mahler, Schoenberg and Webern @ the Royal Festival Hall

23 January 2013

To the Royal Festival Hall to see ‘Extreme Expression‘, one of the 92 concerts featured in their fabulous year-long festival of 20th century music, The Rest Is Noise. Far from being extreme these three pieces represent the lush last years of Germanic Romanticism before Schoenberg and his acolytes opened the door to atonality and then to Serialism.

Anton Webern: Im Sommerwind – idyll for orchestra
Arnold Schoenberg: 5 Orchestral Pieces, Op.16
Interval
Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

The Webern is a very early (1904) ten-minute piece of late Romanticism inspired by stays in the country, and suppressed by the later, wildly radical composer, until rediscovered in the 1960s. It shows what Webern might have been, a pasticheur of the Tradition, of the dominant musical Austrian, Richard Strauss – full of jaunty tunes and lush orchestration. Lovely, but dead.

The Schoenberg (1909) comprises five short pieces which experiment with atonality, timbre, unusual dynamics and sounds ie moving beyond the rich chromaticism of Mahler and Strauss. Their first audiences were outraged by Schoenberg’s deliberate rejection of melody, harmony, smooth orchestration in favour of impenetrable logic, abrupt changes of timbre and assonance, sudden eruptions of loudness, pieces ending on half finished phrases. But to the listener in 2013 it seems full of special affects which will be plundered by composers of film and TV music for countless thrillers and sci fi movies.

‘The Song of the Earth’ by Mahler is the name he gave to a symphonic setting of six songs. It follows his Eighth Symphony, though Mahler was superstitious about calling it his 9th. (All Germanic composers lived in the long shadow of Beethoven and his unsurpassable Ninth Symphony.)

Despite some shorter, jovial drinking songs among the first five, the piece is dominated by the half-hour long final song, ‘Das Abschied’, or ‘The Farewell’, the last of Mahler’s mournful meditations on death. The whole was premiered in November 1911, after the composer’s death in May of that year.

It was pretty much the last symphony in the great German tradition which stretched back to Haydn. After Mahler, Schoenberg and his disciples Berg and Webern were to take German music to completely new places, while composers like Eissler and Weill concentrated on songs and Paul Hindemith did his own thing. Then it’s Stockhausen!

So this concert was about the peak, the acme, the zenith of the German symphonic tradition – and the moment of its dissolution and abrupt, mysterious disappearance. The last words of The Farewell (which Mahler himself wrote) take on a biographical resonance for the dead composer, but also for the entire tradition:

“The beloved Earth blooms forth everywhere in Spring, and becomes green anew! Everywhere and endlessly blue shines the horizon! Endless… endless…”

The three pieces were performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder, joined by mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi and tenor Paul Groves for Das Lied. The Webern was pretty; the Schoenberg was fascinating but not radical enough; the first five songs of Das Lied I’ve always thought trivial and non-descript, full of Mahler mannerisms but without the melodies or big themes which make his earlier songs and symphonies. But Der Abschied was absolutely tremendous. Lilli Paasikivi was just fabulous, moving and trembling with the music, and there was special applause for key instruments the flute, clarinet and horn, all of whom played delicately and wonderfully during the quiet, almost silent passages of this marvellous piece.

The concert was broadcast by BBC Radio 3, so you should be able to hear it here.

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