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Dip Your Ears, No. 77 (Brahms via Schoenberg)

available at Amazon
A.Schoenberg, 5 Orchestral Pieces, Brahms Quartet, Cello Concerto,
Philharmonia, LSO / R.Craft / F. Sherry
Naxos 557524

I love Schoenberg transcriptions of other composers’ works in part because they offer the gentlest insights into the work and ideas (and ideology) of Arnold Schoenberg and are often beautiful even to neophyte ears, possibly handing over the key to understanding more complex works of the composer. Even a beauty like Berg’s violin concerto (who could ever compose something ‘deliberately ugly’ for the “memory of an angel”?) must be appreciated slowly by most listeners… and I find that Webern’s and Schoenberg’s transcriptions help.

To offer along two such works – the rarely recorded Cello Concerto and the more often recorded Brahms Piano Quartet orchestration – a more challenging composition like the “Five Pieces for Orchestra” might be a fine idea to that end (if it doesn’t scare otherwise potential buyers away, which it just might), but why on earth is it placed first on this disc? Maybe the engineers don’t believe in my missionary theory… but in the last or even middle position I think more “accidental” listeners might have given it a fair shake. (As it is, it’s not exactly a definitive recording. Schoenberg fans know to look to Boulez/Sony – for detail – and Barenboim/Teldec – for lushness.)

available at Amazon
Boulez, 5 Pieces, et al.

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
Barenboim, 5 Pieces, et al.

UK | DE | FR

available at Amazon
N.Järvi, Brahms PQ4t transcr.

UK | DE | FR
I’ve never heard the Brahms Piano Quartet in Schoenberg’s orchestration played quite as beautifully as on Christoph Eschenbach’s RCA recording with the Houston Symphony (sadly out of print – coupled with Schoenberg’s Bach transcriptions of BWV 552, BWV 654, and BWV 631). But this monumental work, nicknamed “Brahm’s Fifth Symphony”, is good to have on a budget disc in any performance. (The finest sounding currently available version is probably Neeme Järvi’s Chandos recording.) The Piano Quartet, Schoenberg thought, was too piano-heavy and he went about creating this phenomenally effective orchestration. The Piano Quartet itself is a transcription of Brahms’ own Sonata for Two Pianos (Dip Your Ears No.66) which, incidentally, sounds very symphonic. [I got confused: The Sonata was of course turned into the Piano Quintet, not the Quartet. Thanks for pointing it out.] If you like Brahms and big-boned romantic music, you will love this. If you absolutely want to avoid the “Five Pieces” (don’t!), you can also look for Robert Craft’s early Columbia recording of only Schoenberg-transcriptions recently reissued by Sony/BMG/RCA.

The cello concerto (cellist Fred Shelly Sherry), based on by Georg Matthias Monn's (1717 - 1750) such work, is a rare gem and alternatively available with Yo-Yo Ma on Sony under Ozawa. (I am not familiar at all with Mark Drobinsky’s recording on Gallo; I’ve not heard – but only heard good things about – the Ma recording.) It’s a C.P.E. Bach-ish concerto twice removed, romanticized, and re-assembled. Significantly altered, it makes for a wholly new, oddly familiar, even disorienting work with its basic idiom still (and hence “pleasantly”) that of its original creator. Cellists, even those otherwise allergic to anything ‘Schoenberg’, ought to have a look at this beauty for potential admission into their repertoire. (Not the least because I, selfishly, should like to hear it live, some time.)

This may altogether not be an overwhelming release (re-release, since all three pieces have been taken from Robert Craft’s Schoenberg recordings for the Koch label), but with fine music in an interesting program at a bargain price it is worth your attention.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jens, for including mention of the Schoenberg/Craft re-release.

I was just wondering to what degree it really matters about the placement of Five Pieces. If people don't like Schoenberg, they're not going to buy the disc, no matter who's on first. On the other hand, those who are out exploring, wanting to know more about the composer, would appreciate getting a seminal piece like this right off the bat.

I posted some comments on the Naxos Blog @ Sequenza21 (

jfl said...

I don't know how much it matters. I should hope that with some advice (reviews, word-of-mouth, record store clerks) some people who like late romantic music will be steered towards the Schoenberg *despite* negative connotations with the name. Then they'll find these works most pleasant, indeed... and perhaps even catch a glimpse of how Schoenberg was a true conservative... and eventually graduate toward ... say... Wagner or even the Berg VC.

There are explorers who will aim for getting to the center of Antarctica and then there are those who wish to explore the off-the-beaten paths in the lush mountainside around Niederoeblarn (Tyrolia). They both wish to seek out new things, but some are ready for a more daring and harsh experience than others. The 5 pieces offer a piece of Antarctica amid the green pastures... perhaps too much for the latter kind. Perhaps too much to listen to right up front. It's speculation based on how I approached music like this myself which may not necessarily be representative of a large enough listenership to merit specific marketing efforts.



Anonymous said...

It would be good to note that the cellist in the concerto is Fred SHERRY (of Tashi fame), not Fred Shelly. (The CD credits him on front, back, label AND in the booklet, with a not insubstantial bio.)


jfl said...

Shelly, Sherry... maybe the font-size on the liner notes is too small for me. :-) Mistake noted, correction forthcoming. Thanks.