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CD of the Week – Arnold Schoenberg’s Songs

Arnold Schoenberg: Complete Songs
Capriccio

Song by song by Schoenberg is an album no-one has attempted before, and the more one spins through four CDs the more revealing it becomes. Who knew that the great revolutionary wrote so many little ditties, and of such trifling banality?

Song, for Schoenberg, seemed to be the only musical education he ever got, a means of self-teaching. The earliest number in this set date from 1893, when he was a glum teen being sent to work in a bank. But rather than pitching for the pop charts or trying his luck with a sweet young girl, the composer is working from the outset to push the language of Brahms to its limits and be a serious contender.

The result is often rather lovely – ‘You Turn Your Back on Me’ – as well as character revealing. Undeterred by lack of performance or romantic success, Schoenberg got married and carried on writing, extending his own boundaries with the Book of Hanging Gardens and the Cabaret Songs. He stopped writing songs at a seminal moment – the moment he inserts a song in his second string quartet in the summer of 1908, abandoning tonality and changing the course of music forever.

He returned to the form only once more, in a 1929 commission to set four German folksongs, which came at a time that Schoenberg was starting to define his place in the history and tradition of German music. Song is peripheral to his reputation but, gathered together, the songs show how he became the composer he is.

The singing here is accurate, beautiful and exemplary. Claudia Barainsky and Melanie Diener are the sopranos, Anke Vondung the mezzo, Christa Mayer the contralto, Markus Schäffer the tenor and Konrad Jarnot the head-and-shoulders standout baritone. Urs Liska accompanies, and the sound could not be better. Throw out your old recordings of Schoenberg songs: this is the set to have.

3 piano concerto CDs

Adolf Wiklund
Hyperion

Never heard of him? Wiklund (1879-1950) is number 57 in Hyperion’s series on the Romantic piano concerto. His first effort opens so assertively that you’re tempted to imagine a masterpiece might follow. It doesn’t, but the listening’s easy. Martin Sturfält plays, Andrew Manze conducts the Helsingborg SO.

Schumann
Hyperion

Angela Hewitt’s mastery in Bach and Mozart does not transfer readily to heavy-handed romantics. Her phrasing is lovely but she seldom subdues a big orchestra (the DSO, conductor Hannu Lintu) or suggests that she is driving the tank.

Liszt &c
Naïve

Playing Liszt on an Erard of his own time and a period-instrument orchestra (Le Cercle de l’Harmonie) is like inviting an elephant to walk on plywood. A nasty accident could happen at any moment. Bertrand Chamayou averts one, narrowly. The other two pieces on disc are a Berlioz reverie for violin and orch and a forgotten symphony by Napoleon-Henri Reber. You have to hear it once, if just for the name. Live performance, pellucid sound.

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Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.