Robert Craft

The Music of Arnold Schoenberg

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It's arguable whether or not Robert Craft's recordings for Columbia are pleasurable to hear again after many years in the vault, but because they are part of the historical record and ripe for reissue by Sony, they are at least worth a few words in consideration. This 2006 reissue of Craft's recordings of Arnold Schoenberg's and Anton Webern's orchestral transcriptions of works by Brahms, Bach, and Schubert is a curiosity that deserves to be heard at least once, if only to understand the deep reverence both modernists felt for the past, and the significance of the old masters to the development of their own music. The Piano Quartet in G minor was transformed into a lush, late Romantic symphony by Schoenberg -- he humorously referred to it as Brahms' Fifth Symphony -- and because of the rich orchestration he lavished on this chamber work, it seems to be a heartfelt tribute paid to a lifelong idol. The orchestrations of the Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, "St. Anne," and two chorales, Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele, and Komm, Gott, Schöpfer, Heilger Geist, tie into Schoenberg's continual study of Bach's counterpoint, and may offer some insights into his thinking of the 1920s -- that seminal decade when he devised his twelve-tone system. Yet as appealing as these transcriptions seem on first hearing, they are fairly tame and even tedious on repeated listening, more like pedantic exercises than the glorious fabrications Schoenberg felt them to be. However, the clear identification of motives in Schoenberg's orchestration left an impact on Webern, and would later influence his pointillistic transcription of Bach's Ricercata from the Musical Offering. This methodology, though, does not appear in his amiable arrangement of Schubert's German Dances, and one can listen to this charming set without fear of analytical parsing.

However, one may feel that the poor sound quality of this disc is a major drawback. The performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the CBC Symphony Orchestra, and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra are well-rehearsed, confident, and sometimes enthusiastic, as in the Brahms, but the recordings are only third-rate and difficult to tolerate, even with Sony's DSD remastering (for what good that does for recordings that were mediocre in the first place). But the bad sound that haunts Craft's other Columbia recordings from the 1960s is present here, and only the 1962 tapes of the "St. Anne" are passable; the rest range from fuzzy to oppressively boxy.

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