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Monday, August 28, 2017

Arnold Schoenberg - Verklärte Nacht; String Quartet No. 1 (Fred Sherry String Quartet & Sextet)


Composer: Arnold Schoenberg
  • (01-04) String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7
  • (05-08) Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4
  • (09-12) Four Canons (from Thirty Canons)

Fred Sherry String Quartet and Sextet
Leila Josefowicz, violin (1-12)
Jesse Mills, violin (1-4, 9-12)
David Chan, violin (5-8)
Hsin-Yun Huang, viola (1-4, 9-12)
Paul Neubauer, viola (5-8)
Yura Lee, viola (5-8)
Fred Sherry, cello (1-12)
Michael Nicolas, cello (5-8)

Date: 2013
Label: Naxos



Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht is sometimes paired on records with his String Trio, op. 45, an excellent work but one from a much later period, when the composer had already become firmly entrenched in his 12-tone rut. Here, it is very sensibly coupled with the First String Quartet of 1904–05, an excellent work which, though atonal in places, still has many features akin to his late tonal period. Indeed, there is much in the Quartet that, although unmistakably Schoenbergian, might have been influenced to some extent by the experiments of Bartók. I also found it fascinating that both of these early works were premiered by Arnold Rosé’s famous string quartet (obviously with two extra players in the case of Verklärte Nacht ) at the instigation of Gustav Mahler.

One of the features of this First Quartet which is so different from later Schoenberg is its strong rhythmic sense. Yes, there are indeed passages where the rhythm becomes fragmented and even somewhat obscured, but by and large the music is propelled by an almost ferocious forward momentum, quite different from the rhythmically ambiguous and amorphous music of his maturity. The liner notes indicate some of the varied emotions that the composer attributed to the first movement:

(1) a) Revolt, Defiance; b) Longing; c) Rapture.
(2) a) Dejection; Despair; Fear of being engulfed; unaccustomed feelings of love, desire to be wholly absorbed.
      b) Comfort, Relief (She and He).
      c) New outbreak; Dejection, Despair; and
      d) Transition to
(3) Struggle of all the motives with the determination to begin a new life,
      e) Mild disagreement.

Well, that’s quite an emotional gamut to run, and I find it a little strange … well, OK, really strange … that a composer who plunges headlong emotionally into “Revolt, Defiance, Dejection, Despair” ends up the movement with “mild disagreement”! But hey, that was Arnie Schoenberg, a bit of an odd duck to say the least.

The Fred Sherry Quartet plays this music with incredible energy and passionate emotional commitment, which is really the only way to play Schoenberg. I’ve always found it a bit odd that a composer so closely identified with what you would certainly identify as a cerebral reorganization of music (the 12-tone system) was normally a composer of extremely strong emotions in music. There is scarcely a Schoenberg score, with the possible exception of Pierrot Lunaire (which was, after all, a special case and a bit of a one-off), that does not suck the listener into the vortex of extremely strong emotions. I must, however, be honest and say that, to my ears the somewhat jumbled juxtaposition of themes in the last movement left a bad impression on me.

Verklärte Nacht, like the composer’s early orchestral score Pelleas und Melisande, is so well known nowadays—and generally well-liked—that it seems incredible that it should have caused such a scandal when it was first premiered, in 1903. However, as the composer himself admitted, it soon became very successful, and ironically it was used as a club to hit the composer over the head with when his more outré pieces became known. Here the Sherry Quartet is expanded with the addition of second violist Yura Lee and second cellist Michael Nicolas. Their treatment of this score is rather more abrasive, less plush than one hears, for instance, from the Juilliard String Quartet with special guests Walter Trampler and Yo-Yo Ma on Sony Classical, where the late Romantic elements of the score are emphasized. Here, one hears the harshness of some of the dissonances much more clearly because the playing, for the most part, has a very sharp profile with strongly-accented rhythms. It’s so rare to hear an original interpretation of this piece, however, that one listens eagerly to every change of key and color in this performance; the end result is remarkable and rewarding, particularly in the extraordinarily dark colors they are able to produce in it.

The Four Canons are really excellent music, and are hereby recommended to those who feel that Schoenberg completely “abandoned” his earlier compositional style once he turned to the 12-tone system. The CD box insert denotes that they were composed between 1905 and 1949, but that apparently applies to the complete group of 30 Canons from which these were selected; the four given here were all completed during his mature period: Canon XIX in March 1934, Canon XXV in 1938, Canon XXVII in June 1943, and Canon XXVIII in March 1945. The music, despite its modernist harmonic touches, is quite understandable in terms of its construction and development. In other words, it is still rather accessible when compared to such works as Moses und Aron or A Survivor from Warsaw. I really enjoyed these pieces and the Sherry Quartet’s performances of them.

As a final word, I must ask why an album by the Fred Sherry Quartet and Sextet is identified on the packaging as being part of the Robert Craft Collection . I certainly understand Craft’s recent connection with Naxos and appreciate the fact that they have bought and reissued several of his recordings from the 1990s in addition to putting out new ones, but since he didn’t conduct the Sextet in this performance of Verklärte Nacht, why is it part of “his” collection? Why not, more sensibly, The Schoenberg Collection ? Inquiring minds want to know!

-- Lynn René Bayley, FANFARE

More reviews:


Arnold Schoenberg (13 September 1874 – 13 July 1951) was an Austrian composer, leader of the Second Viennese School. Schoenberg was known early in his career for simultaneously extending the traditionally opposed German Romantic styles of Brahms and Wagner. Later, his name would come to personify innovations in atonality that would become the most polemical feature of 20th-century art music. In the 1920s, Schoenberg developed the twelve-tone technique, an influential compositional method of manipulating an ordered series of all twelve notes in the chromatic scale.


Fred Sherry (born 1948) is an American cellist who is particularly admired for his work as a chamber musician and concert soloist. He studied with Leonard Rose at the Juilliard School before winning the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in 1968. In 1971 he co-founded the Speculum Musicae and in 1973 he co-founded the Tashi Quartet. The Fred Sherry String Quartet was created by Sherry to perform and record the four string quartets of Arnold Schoenberg. With the quartet, Sherry has recorded the Schoenberg quartets, and other pieces for string quartet for the Naxos label.


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