Making the Schoenberg Connection

Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

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SCHOENBERG: Piano Concerto; Three Piano Pieces, Opus 11; Six Little Pieces, Opus 19; BERG: Piano Sonata; WEBERN: Variations. Mitsuko Uchida, piano; Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, conductor

Philips

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SCHOENBERG: Piano Concerto, Cello Concerto, Chamber Symphony No. 2, "Die Glckliche Hand" Christopher Oldfather, piano; Fred Sherry, piano; Mark Beesley, bass; Philharmonia Orchestra; Robert Craft, conductor Koch International Classics

* * * SCHOENBERG/SCHUBERT: Piano pieces Thomas Larcher, piano ECM

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It is a Schoenberg year--the 50th anniversary of his death is July 13--but to many a concertgoer, that's nothing to celebrate. In the popular imagination, Schoenberg's name is still a symbol for the destruction of Classicism and Romanticism.

Still, Schoenberg--pioneering atonalist and 12-toner though he was--was never less than a devoted Classicist and an irrepressibly expressive Romantic. He worked in a broad range of styles and never lost a profound connection with the past. Most of all, his music inspires musicians today, tradition-bound ones and avant-gardists alike.

Consider Mitsuko Uchida and the Piano Concerto, a late 12-tone score but Classical in design and infectiously tuneful, once you acclimate to its idiom. She enlivens it with the same swagger of phrase, rhythmic combustion and cat-like concentration that make her a great Mozart and Schubert pianist. She also brings her astonishing verve to Schoenberg's early, ultra-Expressionist Three Pieces, Opus 11, as well as to the miniature Opus 19 pieces, Berg's Sonata and Webern's Variations for Piano. Boulez assures Uchida excellent support in the Concerto from the expertly balanced Clevelanders. The one drawback is the recorded sound, plush but distant and not as detailed as compulsively detailed music needs.

Robert Craft, who oversaw the first recorded overview of Schoenberg's music on LP some four decades ago (including a famous performance of the Piano Concerto with Glenn Gould), is once more involved in a multi-disc Schoenberg project. This is the seventh volume, and it offers an imaginative introduction to the variety of Schoenbergian styles.

In startling contrast to the Piano Concerto, played here with fluidity and warmth (though hardly Uchida's fire) by Christopher Oldfather, is the rarely heard Cello Concerto. For some reason, Schoenberg set out to update a dull early 18th century harpsichord concerto by the obscure composer Georg Matthias Monn. His idea was to remake it in the later 18th century style of Haydn, but he couldn't stop himself from going further, and his delightfully new harmonies, orchestrations and thematic development cause Monn's original material to veer into the 20th century. The solo part is next to impossible, but Fred Sherry makes it sound as though he had a wonderful time tackling it.

The relatively lightweight Chamber Symphony No. 2 (lightweight for the ever-intense Schoenberg, that is) and the ultra-Expressionistic mini-opera "Die Glckliche Hand" (Fate's Hand) complete this disc in slightly restrained performances.

Thomas Larcher has other points to make about Schoenberg. He alternates movements from Schoenberg's Opus 11 solo piano pieces with Schubert's three Piano Pieces in E-flat, D. 946. The experiment works up to a point. Larcher's introverted pianism (nearly 180 degrees from Uchida's immediacy) helps ease the stylistic jolts between atonality and tonality, between Schubert's leisurely developments and Schoenberg's density of ideas. As the ear picks up amazing coincidences of gestures, Schoenberg begins to sound age-old and Schubert brand new.

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"Bride of the Wind" soundtrack Renee Fleming, soprano; Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano; Vienna Philharmonic, Pierre Boulez and Claudio Abbado, conductors Deutsche Grammophon * * * "The Man Who Cried" soundtrack Salvatore Licitra, tenor; Kronos Quartet; Taraf de Hadouks and others Sony Classical

Schoenberg (or at least his bald pate) finds his way into Bruce Beresford's biopic of Alma Mahler, "Bride of the Wind," but certainly not his music.

Instead, this stultifying costume drama is accompanied by excerpts from the symphonies of Alma's husband, by Stephen Endelman's original music (Hollywoodized Mahler) and by Endelman's arrangements of some Alma songs (enthusiastically sung by Renee Fleming). As Alma moves on, after Mahler's death in 1911, to other artist husbands and lovers (Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka and Franz Werfel), the music never follows the sensibilities of a progressing century but remains stuck on Mahler. The album has good Mahler sound bites, but that's about all.

Sally Potter's sentimental "The Man Who Cried," in which John Turturro plays a fascist Italian opera singer, also features reworked vocal music, principally the famous aria "Je crois entendre encore" from Bizet's "Pearl Fishers," which is repeated an annoyingly large number of times. But thanks to Osvaldo Golijov, the film's composer and arranger, it is never repeated the same way twice. One time we hear it accompanied by two flashy pianos (played by the Labeque sisters), another time it is turned into suitable material for the Kronos Quartet, and in yet another version it is sung in Yiddish.

Golijov, who's usual stamping ground is Nonesuch Records, brings along many Nonesuch friends, such as the Kronos, Taraf de Hadouks (the rollickingly weird Gypsy band), Eva Bittov (the rollickingly weird avant-garde Moravian violinist and vocalist) and Fred Frith (the art-rock guitarist). Ever unpredictable, Golijov even turns Dido's Lament from Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" into an unearthly Gypsy number for Bittova and Tara de Hadouks that must be heard to be believed.

* 1/2 HANDEL: Gloria, Dixit Dominus Various artists BIS

Discovered in March, recorded in May and now released in June, Handel's Gloria, for soprano and string orchestra, has caused a sensation in the classical music world. Actually, it is more like sensationalism. The so-called discovery of this 15-minute section of the mass, made by a German musicologist at the Royal Academy of Music in London, was less a case of musical archeology than expert detective work. The score was known, it just hadn't been correctly attributed.

It is hardly the recovery of another "Messiah," as some overeager reports would have it. Rather, it is a small early piece from Handel's Rome years, a very minor addition to an enormous body of work and mainly of interest to scholars, because Handel did not otherwise compose masses. Being perfectly fine minor Handel means there is lively vocal writing, with touching small details and a flashy Amen. Still, it lacks the inspiration of Handel's best early religious pieces, to say nothing of the genius of his later operas and oratorios.

The Royal Academy, owner of the manuscript, got the right to first recording and turned to the veteran early-music soprano Emma Kirkby, who no longer boasts the astonishing purity of tone that once made her special. Still, she sounds respectable enough and her presence suits this dutiful interpretation. The Swedish label, BIS, has filled out the short disc with a 15-year-old recording of the more substantial Dixit Dominus that is no longer competitive and more suitable for a super-budget reissue than for this high-profile release. It only makes this whole enterprise seem like something of a rip-off.

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ROUSE: Concerto de Gaudi; TAN: "Yi2" Sharon Isbin, guitar; Gulbenkian Orchestra, Muhai Tang, conductor Teldec

If Sharon Isbin won a Grammy this year for her bland "Dreams of the World," then she deserves a Nobel for this recording of two terrific new guitar concertos, written for her and played with gripping persuasiveness. Christopher Rouse, a composer with a plucky taste for classic rock and a contradictory tendency to slip into dark Shostakovichian moods, shows off neither here. Instead he sets conventional Spanish guitar style surrealistically on its ear. His concerto begins as though it was a sequel to Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" gone wonderfully awry. The middle movement, however, is the work's treasure, with a lyricism that is about as compulsively memorable as the beloved middle movement of Rodrigo's concerto.

Tan also begins his concerto, "Yi2," with a nice Spanish-style guitar flourish, but then heads in his own surrealistic direction, namely toward his Chinese roots, as the guitar sheds its Spanishness and becomes a pipa, the Chinese lute. Typical of Tan, the concerto is full of attention-getting dramatic gestures, with beautiful moments of ethereal lyricism when the music seems grounded to nothing at all. Another highlight of this riveting concerto is a sensational cadenza, fresh, aggressive and original, and brilliantly played by Isbin.

Muhai Tang, a Chinese conductor who deserves to be better known, appears sensitive to whatever styles these eclectic composers throw at him. In a final winning touch, Teldec adds the immediacy of stunning recorded sound.

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