The Ulster Orchestra Conducted by Takuo Yuasa
1. Passacaglia Op 1 (1908) 2-6. Five movements for Strings Op 5 (1929) 7-12. Six Pieces Op 6 (1909 rev. 1928) 13-17. Five Pieces Op 10 (1911-13) 18-19. Symphony Op 21 (1928) 20. Variations Op 30 (1940)
Recorded in The Ulster Hall, Belfast on 29 & 30 March 2000 Naxos 8.554841 [52'27"]
A fascinating and intellectual figure, Webern was undoubtedly one of the giants of musical thought in the 20th century, even if most of what he wrote was far from giant music. His over-riding concern was with musical unity, a concept that led him to squeeze more and more meaning out of less and less material until he was writing works where the individual note took the place almost of complete themes. Certainly, working on such a scale of miniaturisation every note became more than just important and, indeed, the spaces around the notes; the silences that define the notes, became crucial to Webern's compositional process. This concept is clearly seen in a work such as the Five pieces Op 10, the forth of which, at 32" and only six bars of length, counts as one of the most concentrated musical thoughts of all time.
However, it was not all minute pointillist detail. The opening work on this disc shows the early Webern, well versed in mid-romantic orchestration and harmony creating a palette of colour and texture much more akin to what we might expect from a more 'traditional' composer of the late 19th century. The Ulster Orchestra perform all of the works with clarity and precision, not shying away from the big climax, on those comparatively rare occasions where there is one. The Passacaglia and the Six Pieces Op 6 both provide opportunities. The string sound can lack warmth, and tends towards the harsh at these moments, but the wind and brass playing is excellent throughout.
The Symphony Op 21 also requires mention. At 7'52" it is possibly the shortest work in the repertoire to bear that title, but it is indeed one of Webern's longer works. Although written in the Twelve-tone method adopted from Webern's teacher Schoenberg, it is the tautness of the structure that stands out more. In a move away from the tiny individual gesture, Webern employs more sustained textures with material treated in canon and imitation. This linear sense is compellingly brought out in Takuo Yuasa's interpretation. There is structure, but there is also movement and the intense expression of these large concepts on a small scale finds an excellent outlet in this performance. It must be said that this repertoire is not background listening. The paring down of the music to absolute essentials also requires of the listener a concentration of similar intensity. It is rewarding to indulge.
8-19. Symphony Op 21 (1928)
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