Schoenberg believed that music had an evolutional history that included the development and perfection of tonal systems in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Schoenberg deeply respected tonal music and he trained his composition pupils thoroughly in tonality and traditional counterpoint; however, he viewed the increasing use of chromaticism and non-diatonic chords in the later nineteenth century as a teleological process leading to the necessary—if uncomfortable—abandonment of tonality in the twentieth century. The pieces on this album illustrate Schoenberg’s compositional development and his strange position as both conservative and herald of “the music of the future.”
Two powerhouse ensembles specializing in modernist music performance joined together on this album. The result of this collaboration is an outstanding collection of some of Arnold Schoenberg’s lesser-known pieces along with better-known classics from his oeuvre. Ensemble Intercontemporain—a group of 31 soloists—has been an institution since its founding in 1976 by Pierre Boulez. And, in 1991, Laurence Equilbey brought together 32 professional singers to form the choir Accentus. Equilbey’s primary goal was the revival of an a capella choir tradition, and his group tackles a largely modernist repertoire. In addition to a capella performances, Accentus collaborates with instrumental groups in order to perform and record mixed ensemble pieces, and this is not the first time they’ve worked with Ensemble Intercontemporain.
Particularly exceptional about this recording is the inclusion of two versions of Schoenberg’s choral work, Frieden Auf Erden. Track 1 is the version with the orchestral accompaniment that Schoenberg write in 1911 because the original a capella version was declared “unperformable.” Time and many performances have proven that Frieden Auf Erden is indeed performable, though I think rarely with such grace and confidence as displayed by Accentus on this recording.
Also of note is a transcription of the third movement of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchetra by Franck Krawczyk completed in 2002. According to the liner notes, Krawczyk was motivated to do this transcription by the Second Viennese School’s practice of doing transcriptions in order to “shed light” on someone else’s musical composition. What Krawczyk and Accentus accomplish is an extraordinary piece of music.
Nestled among the less frequently performed choral works is the Schoenberg Kammersymphonie, opus 9 (1906) performed by Ensemble Intercontemporain. Although this piece is available on other high-quality recordings, its inclusion adds variety and interest to this assortment of pieces.
Schoenberg’s music was met with great resistance and little understanding from critics and audiences. At the end of his life, having been exiled from the very country whose music he had hoped to progress and forced to teach lower-level courses to UCLA undergraduates, it is probably fair to say that Schoenberg was disillusioned by the future of music in general, and his music in particular.
While popular opinion may have it that Schoenberg brought ruin to classical music with his “emancipation of the dissonance,” sensitive and smart performances like those by Accentus and Ensemble Intercontemporain prove that Schoenberg’s output contains more than just theoretical pieces; rather, his music is rich, varied, and emotionally compelling as well as intellectually challenging.
CUNY – The Graduate Center