A blitz of concert performances and some highly-publicised new recordings of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring are currently appearing to remind listeners that a century has passed since the work's notoriously riotous 1913 premiere. But when the 100th anniversary of that other cornerstone of musical modernism, Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire, arrived last year, there was not nearly as much as a fuss. The reason is that, while The Rite has long since taken its place in the standard repertoire, Schoenberg's musical "melodrama" has lost none of its uncomfortable strangeness since its first performance in 1912, and like much of the composer's work, its appearance on a concert programme is enough to ensure that much of the usual crowd won't show up.
HOMAGE TO EDUARD STEUERMANN: SCHOENBERG: Complete Piano Music; EDUARD STEUERMANN: Suite ; POULENC: Toccata (arr three pianos by Steuermann); JOHANN STRAUSS: Themes from Die Fledermaus (arr three pianos by Steuermann); SCHUBERT: Wohin (arr two pianos by Steuermann); JOHANN STRAUSS: Perpetuum mobile (arr two pianos by Steuermann). Eduard Steuermann (piano, in the Schoenberg); Thomas Hell (piano, in the Steuermann suite); Erika Haase, Carmine Piazzini, Ulrike Moortbak-Pick (in the Poulenc, Strauss, and Schubert transcriptions). Tacet CD set Tacet 186 (two discs)
Schoenberg's claim that "my music isn't modern, it's just badly played" is pushing it a bit. Of course it's modern, at least in terms of its atonal and later serial musical language and grammar. But the composer always insisted that there was a strong kinship between his work and that of Brahms, whom he idolised. Another famous remark of Schoenberg's was made in connection with the conductor Serge Koussevitsky's refusal to conduct his Op. 31 Orchestral Variations, on the grounds that he "didn't understand" the piece. "But he plays Brahms!," Schoenberg is reported to have said.
As regards the composer's claim that his music was badly played, it may be closer to the truth to say that it was incorrectly interpreted, and it is in connection with this tendency that this new rerelease of Eduard Steuermann's landmark recording of Schoenberg's complete piano music is so welcome. High-quality sound recording came a little too late to do justice to the performances of Schoenberg's music given by musicians who were close to him and had a thorough understanding of his style and its links to the past. The composer's own 1940 recorded account of Pierrot lunaire with Erika Stiedry-Wagner as reciter and a septet of his musician friends remains the only one to do full justice to its Expressionist creepiness. It has long been out of print. The Kolisch Quartet's recordings from the 1930s of the four string quartets, made privately as a gift for the composer, have a special fluency, too, as do conductor Hans Rosbaud's 1950s versions of Schoenberg's orchestral music which, despite some dim sound and less-than-ideal playing, remain near the top of the list as interpretations, clearly revealing the Romantic roots.
The pianist at the 1912 premiere of Pierrot lunaire was Eduard Steuermann, and it is also Steuermann at the piano in the 1940 recording. He premiered much of the piano music, including the Piano Concerto, and it is easy to suspect that Schoenberg may have composed some of it with Steuermann in mind. In the early '50s Steuermann recorded Schoenberg's complete solo piano music for Columbia, and for years that landmark monaural LP served for a generation of listeners, including this one, as an entry point into a rich new musical world.
As the Columbia classical label became CBS and later Sony, the record remained unavailable and was never transferred to CD. The original tape may still be with Sony, but the German label Tacet turned to a pristine copy of the original LP as the source for this new release.
In the year since Steuermann's programme was deleted quite a few recordings of Schoenberg's complete piano music have appeared, most notably by Maurizio Pollini (DG), Glenn Gould (Sony) and Paul Jacobs (Nonesuch, out of print). Gould was loud in his enthusiasm for this repertoire, and at one point claimed that the Suite, Op. 25 was the greatest modern work for piano. Even so, his recording of the piece sounds detached and sterile compared to any of the others.
Pollini's disc has established itself as a classic, and would be hard to surpass as a series of interpretations that stress the music's modernism. His technique is superior to Steuermann's; listen to the way he navigates the alternating passages of dynamism and delicacy in the third of the Op. 11 pieces.
The DG engineers bring a feeling of atmosphere to, for example, the bell-like timbres of the last of the Op. 19 pieces that the Columbia engineers of the early 1950s couldn't approach. But listening to the entire sets of the opp. 19 and 23 pieces as played by Steuermann and Pollini, the former often communicates a kind of irrational, nighttime state of mind that Pollini, for all of his mastery of the music's colour and dynamic shading, doesn't quite get to. He is also less sensitive to the playfulness that is an important part of many of these pieces, especially the Suite, Op. 25. Compare the performances of the third movement, the Musette, and Steuermann's deeper responsiveness to Schoenberg's style will be obvious.
The pianist who comes closest is not Steuermann student Jacobs, fine as his performances are, but Michiko Uchida, in the selections from his solo piano music included on her matchless account of the Piano Concerto. She combines a Steuermann-like responsiveness to Schoenberg's humour and nostalgia that I haven't heard elsewhere. Perhaps she will eventually make a complete recording of the music. If she were to interpret the opp. 23, 25, and 33 works as eloquently as she does the opp. 11 and 19 pieces on the concerto disc, the programme would be an embellishment to the catalogue.
Steuermann the composer was perhaps not on a par with Steuermann the Schoenberg interpreter. His own Suite, included here on a second disc recorded in modern stereo in a performance by Thomas Hell, is attractive without having any of the personality that Schoenberg's Suite projects from the first bar. It is pleasant listening, though, and is far removed from the uninspired serial note-spinning that Schoenberg's 12-tone technique unleashed from a generation of younger, less gifted composers.
The programme is completed by Steuermann's transcriptions for multiple pianos of light works by Johann Strauss, Schubert and Poulenc.
His obvious affection for this music points up another link with Schoenberg, whose transcriptions of Strauss waltzes were a highlight of the private concerts at which his own, more radical works were introduced.
This is an essential release for anyone who loves Schoenberg's music. Be prepared for some stridency, especially in the upper register of this monaural recording. I bought my copy from Amazon.de. To date there is no legitimate download available.
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- Writer: Ung-Aang Talay