Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg lived through some of the worst years of the twentieth century and his music sometimes sounds that way. Five of the six works on this 2008 Naxos disc were written between 1942 and 1950, the years after Schoenberg had left Nazi Europe for Los Angeles and converted back to his natal Judaism. The spirit of those times brands four of the five works -- the anti-Hitler Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, the two grim a cappella settings of Dreimal Tausand Jahre and De Profundis, and especially the harrowing A Survivor from Warsaw. In the right performances, hearing any one of these works would be a searing and cathartic experience. Hearing them here in performances led by Robert Craft, the experience is certainly searing, but not ultimately cathartic.
A Survivor from Warsaw is surely overwhelming. With narrator David Wilson-Johnson taking the dramatic lead and the Philharmonia Orchestra providing the accompaniment, Craft's performance is nerve wracking. But when the Simon Joly Chorale enters at the climax, the effect only increases the intensity; it doesn't provide release from the horror. In the two a cappella settings, the chorale's articulation is precise and its intonation dead on, but again, while Craft's interpretation is frightening in its ferocious concentration, the climax is only more of the same. Wilson-Johnson returns for the Ode accompanied here by pianist Jeremy Denk and the Fred Sherry Quartet, but while his performance is sardonic and the instrumental ensemble's backing is brutal, the interpretation comes off as more snidely contemptuous than grandly indicting. The inclusion of the Prelude to Genesis from 1944, a piece written for an unmade film that was to depict the book of the Bible of the same name, is aesthetically of a piece with its contemporary works, with a dark and brooding opening climaxing in the creation of the world in a burst of chorale glory. And Craft's interpretation is again more successful in depicting dark than in creating light.
The program's odd man out is Schoenberg's 1934 Violin Concerto, a work composed in an earlier, entirely different, and much more genial musical world. Performed here with brilliance and élan by German violinist Rolf Schulte, the concerto is, relatively speaking for serial music, a lyrical work of vivacious virtuosity, showing Schoenberg at his most cheerfully neo-Brahmsian. Craft and the Philharmonia seem more relaxed here, particularly in the central Andante grazioso, and the finale's coda is suitably majestic.
In sum, while this disc may be mandatory for dedicated Schoenberg aficionados, only the heartiest of neophytes will want to sample anything except the Violin Concerto. Naxos' digital sound is clear and cool, but with an impressive sense of time and place.