WEBERN:  Passacaglia, Op. 1.  Five Movements for Strings, Op. 5.  Six Pieces, Op. 6. Five Pieces, Op. 10. Symphony, Op. 21.  Variations, Op. 30
Ulster Orch/TakuoYuasa, cond.

NAXOS 8.554841 (B) (DDD) TT:  52:27

These admirably lucid and textually accurate performances were recorded two years ago in Ulster Hall at Belfast by Northern Ireland's premier orchestra, under the direction of its principal guest conductor Takuo Yuasa (after studies in his native Osaka and the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, a pupil of Hans Swarowsky and Igor Markevitch at Vienna, then Franco Ferrera in Italy). A companion disc of Schoenberg early and late preceded this one from the same source, as well as music of Glass, Taverner and others on Naxos.

Recordings of Webern's progressively fragmentary but architecturally lucid music - not only 12-tone but ultimately serialized in all aspects, including rhythm and structure - have been with us since Robert Craft's pioneering if sometimes chaotic overview on Columbia mono LPs, with an under-rehearsed coven of New York City freelance players. Herbert Kegel, Pierre Boulez and Christoph von Dohnányi have been notable proponents in the stereo era, while we might have had a complete recording by Sixten Ehrling of all of Webern's music for orchestra along with the complete Nielsen symphonies if Philips hadn't balked. 

Yuasa does not include the student Im Sommerwind (1904) that Dohnányi featured in his Cleveland Orchestra collection, but substitutes instead the delectable Five Movements for Strings, Op. 5. At a third the price (more or less) of Boulez or Dohnányi, this Naxos collection is a remarkable bargain for those with ears open to Webern's exploration of serial methods even while his "master," Schoenberg, was still formulating them. In the event, Webern was indubitably a superior orchestrator, with a subtler ear than his master and a singular mastery of the most delicate effects (as in the third of Five Pieces, Op. 10, "Sehr langsam und äusserst zart"). But he could write music as terrifying as the "Sehr mässig" fourth of Six Pieces, Op. 6.

I don't often listen to Webern, yet never fail to be astonished by his genius and hypnotized by his subtleties (when conducting, he sought to duplicate as precisely as possible other composers' instructions, resulting in his being replaced at Barcelona after 40 hours of rehearsal without completing work on the Berg Violin Concerto - a premiere Hermann Scherchen was summoned to wrap up and conduct). Webern was a celebrated interpreter of Mahler's music - in the view of some incomparable - between 1911 and the Nazi suppression of "Jewish art" in 1938. His performances also of Schubert with the Workingmen's Symphony Orchestra of Vienna were treasured by those who attended.

Naxos' recorded sound, produced by Tim Handley, is as pellucid as any on Webern discs past or current. Coupled with Yuasa's performances, the bargain should prove irresistible to adventurers.

R.D. (Feb. 2002)