SCHREKER: Chamber Symphony. Intermezzo. Vorspiel zu einem Drama. Romantische Suite. Die Dunkelheit sinkt schwer wie Blei. Vorspiel zu einer grossen Oper. In einem Lande ein bleicher König. SCHMIDT: Variations on a Hussar's Song. BUSONI: 2 Studies for Doktor Faust.
Camerata Academica Salzburg/Franz Welser-Möst; Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/James Conlon; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone); Aribert Reimann (piano); Thomas Hampson (baritone); Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Fabio Luisi; New Philharmonia Orchester/Hans Bauer; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Daniell Revenaugh.
EMI 27973 TT: 148:39 (2 CDs).

Caught in the middle. George Bernard Shaw once said that in art, it doesn't matter who came before you as much as who comes after you. Mozart brought the classical style to its height and its vitality largely disappeared thereafter. Those who continued it we've mostly forgotten about. Beethoven, with the foundation of Haydn and Mozart, changed music considerably. Similarly Mahler and Richard Strauss brought the post-Wagnerian chromatic idiom to its height. However, the future of German music lay with Schoenberg, Hindemith, Weill, Toch, and even Stravinsky rather than with Siegfried Wagner, Pfitzner, Zemlinsky, Schreker, or Korngold. This doesn't mean that the style had played itself out, but that no composer of comparable genius carried it on. As Milhaud once remarked, "The future of French music [after Debussy] will be whatever the next great French composer writes." To a large extent, the music of the composers on this program represents their efforts to figure out what to do after Mahler and Strauss. All of them consciously thought about it, too -- most famously, Busoni in his Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music.

Well-regarded as a composer and teacher, Franz Schreker saw his career peak in the early Twenties. He enjoyed his greatest success in opera. However, music moved fast in the Twenties. By the end of the decade, his reputation had begun to wane. Furthermore, rising anti-Semitism in Austria resulted in cancellations of announced performances and his ouster from his teaching posts. He died in 1934.

Schreker's music stands out for its orchestration -- more French than German, more Ravel than Richard Strauss -- emphasizing points of color rather than an organ-registration. Yet its idiom is pure Richard Strauss, without the genius themes. One remembers Schreker's music for its sounds rather than its substance. The Chamber Symphony (1916) encapsulates Schreker's strengths and weaknesses. Out of 23 instruments, he gets ravishing colors clear, original, and, where warranted, astonishingly full. The opening grabs attention and sticks to one's memory like a burr, but not for its argumentative material. After several listenings, I still couldn't tell you what the main theme is, but I remember the colors. The same holds true through most of the work. Schreker divides the work formally into five movements, played without a break, but the listener perceives in reality four: introduction and allegro; adagio; scherzo; transitional passage; finale. The finale reworks and expands the introduction.

Schreker, I believe, falls into another late-Romantic trap: too much material. If one countermelody is good, three is three times as good. As a result, too much competes for the listener's attention, and very little stands out. There's enough material here for at least two other works, and each idea seems equally important. We remember individuals rather than crowds. The argument proceeds largely on "organic," non-classical lines, lighting on one new idea briefly before a shiny something else catches its attention -- like a sufferer with ADD. Schreker is by no means alone in this among his contemporaries. The scherzo counts as the exception to this, and not coincidentally it's the one movement where Schreker has taken the trouble to clear away the brush of secondary themes.

The Romantic Suite of 1903 (according to Grove; the liner notes say 1902) demonstrates sharper outlines. It originally had four movements, including the Intermezzo of 1900, which Schreker decided to leave out as not fitting in. Despite the Intermezzo's Wagnerian beauty, I agree with Schreker's choice. The suite in its final form contains an andante, a scherzo, and an allegro vivace finale, which strikes me as the best of the set. Despite the School of Wagner addiction to piling on climax after climax, nevertheless Schreker has avoided the sin of continual thematic backstitching that plagues most of his other works. Perhaps the suite's early date has something to do with this.

The Vorspiel zu einem Drama (prelude to a drama) and Vorspiel zu einer grossen Oper (prelude to a grand opera) use themes from two Schreker operas: Die Gezeichneten (the diseased, or the depraved) and the proposed Memnon, never written. Die Gezeichneten (1915, premiered 1918) propelled Schreker to the first rank of contemporary Austrian opera composers. At least one critic compared him to Wagner. It's a mix of incompatibles typical of German music of the time: an Expressionist libretto set to High Romantic music. Schreker doesn't get them to mesh convincingly, as Strauss does in, say, Salome and Elektra. Schreker never intended the Vorspiele to precede the operas in performance. Rather, he wrote them as separate tone poems. Compared to the Strauss examples, however, they natter: it's an accompaniment to a silent film improvised on the theater Wurlitzer. Again, the main thing that stands out is the orchestration (Memnon even more so than Die Gezeichneten) rather than the themes, and an argument doesn't exist.

Die ferne Klang (the distant sound; 1910) affected several other Viennese. Schoenberg cited it in his Theory of Harmony, and one can hear its influence on Berg. For this reason, it's at least historically important in 20th-century opera. The two songs -- "Die Dunkelheit sinkt schwer wie Blei" (darkness sinks, heavy as lead) and "In einem Lande ein bleicher König" (in a land, a pale king) -- sink, heavy as lead. They're neither aria nor arioso. It's a double order of noodles: the accompaniment noodles around, and the vocal part noodles around above it.

Franz Schmidt belongs to the same milieu as Schreker, but his take on Wagner is essentially Bruckner's. That is, he attempts to fit classical structures to Wagnerian language, very often successfully. He was likely the most officially-honored Viennese composer of his time -- beyond Schoenberg and Mahler -- but his music hasn't really made inroads outside his own country. Born in Brataslava, he came from a family that spoke Hungarian first, and Hungarian elements show up in much of his music. In the Variations on a Hussar's Song, these elements not only are part of the theme (the "Scotch snap," for example) but in the work's general form. A substantial slow and somber fantasia on elements of the theme, as if the germs of the theme sloshed around in the primordial ooze, introduces the lively theme and variations -- essentially, a sophisticated variant of the bipartite structure also found in Hungarian folk music (cf. the Hungarian rhapsodies of Liszt and many works by Bartók and Kodály). Schmidt resists the temptation to "regularize" the theme, keeping especially its rhythmic ambiguities -- a more Modern approach to folk music, even though not as "hard-core" as Bartók. Schmidt kept up with his more radical contemporaries. Schoenberg especially admired Schmidt's conducting of Pierrot Lunaire. In his own music, Schmidt kept pushing to extend his Late Romantic idiom, I think finally achieving the final step into Modernism (or at least Mahlerism) with his massive oratorio Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln. Although the individual variations are nifty, neighbors tend to clump into distinct sections: moderato, slow, allegretto, scherzo, and so on. Schmidt saves the most elaborate variation for last, at one point breaking into a witty polka within, and ending in a great burst of good spirit. Schmidt has at least as much complexity as Schreker, but he also has greater elegance and certainly knows how to build a musical argument.

Ferruccio Busoni has a permanent place in the repertoire as the tail of the hyphenated Bach-Busoni, magnificent piano transcriptions of (mainly) organ works by Bach. His piano concerto gets touted now and again, but it strikes me as windy, even in the magnificent reading by Ohlsson, Dohnányi, and the Cleveland. I prefer by far the clarinet concertino, the Rondo arlecchinesco, and -- for me, his finest achievement -- the operas Arlecchino, Turandot, and the incomplete Doktor Faust, all composed after the outbreak of World War I. Busoni's original music presents an odd case, in that you get the impression that he continually chafes against his own idiom. I know of few other composers who kick and scratch as much as he does (Beethoven comes to mind) to expand his means of expression. Even in his more conventional works, he sounds in his time, but not of it. The studies for Doktor Faust weren't meant for the opera. Like the Schreker Vorspiele, they stand alone. I hear foreshadowings not only of his pupil Kurt Weill, but of Berg. The sarabande, solemn and uneasy, even spooky, and the lively, nervous cortège (said to portray Mephisto) are the two works on this program that have pretty much left the 19th Century behind. Busoni died relatively young, before completing the opera, leaving behind another great musical "what-if."

The performances vary. Welser-Möst gets eerily clear textures from his Camerata. Conlon and his Colognials and do what they can with their Schreker, Fischer-Dieskau and Hampson the same. As good as they are, they can't make more of what they're given. Hans Bauer throws off sparks in the Schmidt variations. Daniell Revenaugh's account of the Busoni comes from years ago -- a lackluster EMI LP featuring John Ogdon in the piano concerto. The studies were filler and came off better than the star attraction. It's nice to see them back.

S.G.S. (July 2011)