Sunday, May 8, 2011

It was 102 years ago, for heaven's sake!

I do try to broaden my musical horizons when I can, but I must admit that in the absence of tonality this can often end in disappointment. Perhaps I should some day sit down and work out what exactly it is that I respond to, but I suppose ultimately it's just basic ideas like pattern, progression, sound-world, emotion. Tonality provides an anchor that makes it easier to appreciate the first two of those. This week I've set myself the task of listening to, and hopefully getting some sort of handle on, Arnold Schoenberg's piano music, as performed on a DG disc by Maurizio Pollini. If I fail to get anything out of it, well, perhaps I'm in good company, following Gregor Willmes' sleeve note:
It is a conspicuous fact that the majority of 20th-century pianists rarely if ever played the music of their time. Most members of their guild could not come to grips with Arnold Schoenberg's break with tonality - the culminating point heralded by his Three Piano Pieces op.11. Of the two handfuls of pianists who achieved world fame in the last century, hardly a single one ventured an approach to Schoenberg's music. Who would ever think to associate the names of Horowitz, Rubinstein or Argerich with the Second Viennese School?... Only two major pianists committed to disc Schoenberg's entire output for solo piano: Glenn Gould and Maurizio Pollini.
Schoenberg's op.11 was written in 1909 and yet we still use the phrase "modern music" to describe, or indeed dismiss, such compositions. That was also the year of Mahler's 9th symphony, Rachmaninov's 3rd piano concerto, and Vaughan Williams's Sea Symphony. Yes, I will take RVW over Schoenberg, thank you. But I have made some progress: here's Pollini playing the second of Schoenberg's op.11 pieces, as the composer waves bye-bye to tonality but throws us a lifeline in the form of a bass ostinato.

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