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Living Presence
20th-Century Music

Alban Berg: Wozzeck (Three Excerpts); Lulu-Suite. Helga Pilarczyk, soprano; London Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati cond. Mercury SR90278

Gunther Schuller: Seven Studies On Themes Of Paul Klee.
Paul Fetler: Contrasts For Orchestra. 
Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati cond. Mercury SR90282

Arnold Schoenberg: Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16.
Anton Webern: Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10.
Alban Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6.
London Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati, cond. Mercury SR90316


Review By Leonard Norwitz
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The Living Presence of 20th-Century Music Mercury

LP Number: Speakers Corner 3-LP Set


  After several years without a Mercury reissue from Classic Records, we are treated at last to four from Speakers Corner.  Three of these are contained in the present set; the fourth, not reviewed here, is SR90213, Music of Ravel & Debussy with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul Paray.

It is hard to imagine that a company as sensitive to music as Mercury would have conceived of the Speakers Corner box as a set. While the title is apt, the music of Schuller and Fetler has little in common with that of the three titans of the New Vienna School--other than, in this context, its conductor and record label. In the first decades of the last century, Schoenberg and his disciples Berg and Webern were major players in the concert music tradition — and they still are.  Schuller and Fetler were passing intrigues in 1958-59 when their music was composed — and still are.  More important than the relative significance of these composers is a huge difference in style.  It’s like lumping Beethoven and Bob Dylan into the same program-- I might find it amusing in a live performance, but an uncomfortable stretch on a recording.  As it stands, the Schuller/Fetler record is conspicuously out of place in the company of such giants.


Mercury SR90278: Here we have orchestral excerpts, along with an occasional bit from the soprano, from two operatic masterpieces of the past hundred years.  Both of these suites were composed and presented more or less as marketing ploys to raise interest in staging the operas, and so their life as legitimate concert works might be questioned. The vocals are so much a part of the texture that their absence yields an entirely different aural and dramatic encounter.  We need only compare our experience of the first two orchestral movements of the Lulu-Suite with the third movement, which adds a vocal part; or the Suite as a whole to the first few minutes of the opera, if you really want a jolt.

Wozzeck is the quintessential 20th century opera. The angst of its protagonist: his impotence in terms of social status and ambition (small that it is) and his subsequent murderous passion leading to his becoming his own victim; the poignant romanticism of its orchestration and harmonic language; and the directness of its text all conspire to paint a portrait of our times, of what Western Civilized Man was then and was to become for the next eight decades.  The Three Excerpts don't really do the opera justice for several reasons, but then they don't mean to be a Reader's Digest version of events.  Its brevity; the absence of the male singers; and the omission of the text here and there, even within the scenes excerpted — those elements will be missed if you know the work only in its operatic form. That said, this is achingly awesome music, and not to be missed.

Dorati had distinguished himself in the previous decade as the century's premiere ballet conductor, and would go on to conduct Haydn's 100+ symphonies for Decca. (An achievement like unto that of Peter Jackson's in directing The Lord of the Rings trilogy — no, better). He is amazing here.  He gets the textures just right, letting in lots of light through the lush orchestration, yet never falling too much in love with sound for its own sake. Berg's music sings even without the voice.  Importantly, Dorati finds a dramatic continuity where I would have not expected it, given the narrative gaps inherent in these pieces. Pilarcyzk, the lone human voice on this record, lacks the necessary degree of dismissive carelessness required of Marie, Wozzeck's philandering wife (if I may be permitted the usage in these times of gender equality).  She is better and stronger as Lulu.


Mercury SR90282:  Despite my earlier disparaging remarks about the composers on this record, I have always had a fondness for Schuller's contemplative, yet colorful Seven Studies.  And if ever a record deserved the audiophile treatment of whisper-quiet surfaces, this is it, for these pieces are about as subtle as one can get, with textures a uh and dynamics barely above the noise floor.  In contrast [sorry], Fetler's Contrasts for Orchestra come off as little more than a suite of film score music (which, in some wise, it has been used) — no offense to Steiner, Korngold, Rosza, Hermann, et al. Contrasts is not without its moments, but I don't find they add up to much. Perhaps surprisingly — especially to those who routinely dismiss orchestras lacking the prestige of the NY Phil or the Chicago or Boston Symphonies — the Minneapolis band here does not suffer all that much compared to their London Symphony counterparts.  Dorati spent years bringing the MSO to this level of excellence, and we can hear that the time was well spent.


Mercury SR90316:  Of the three records in this collection, this one alone is worth the price of the whole set--it is both the icing and the cake.  First, ditto my above remarks about Dorati: The orchestral textures in these pieces, full of pitfalls for the careless conductor, are here exposed in all their beauty. Typical of the century's best music, these works' emotion and drama, distilled to the smallest gesture, will not yield their secrets on first hearing. Yet from initial encounter through repeated listening, the rewards keep coming. If I were approaching the music in these records for the first time, I would begin with this one — and with the Schoenberg. The vinyl will take just about as long to recover as will the uninitiated listener!  I suggest you return to these pieces once more after a day or so to reinforce your first hearing of them. For all their intensity, the pieces are short enough to get one's mind around. But watch out for Webern, whose Five Pieces, averaging under one minute per, might go by so quickly that you wonder if you missed something.  The answer is yes — But not to worry.  Once you "get" that the Webern and Berg are different from the Schoenberg, you will be on the road to an appreciation sufficient for a loving understanding of the music.

In addition to facsimiles of the original record jackets, The Living Presence of 20th-Century Music comes with an occasionally informative booklet (in German and English) that includes a recent essay by Hagen Zimmermann, who puts forward the case for the present program, and a history of Mercury with accompanying photos.  I am not much in agreement with Zimmermann's review of this music.  I not only disagree with some of his assumptions, but I find also that he is unable to fashion a language that speaks usefully to the unschooled music lover — who is after all his target audience.  The unsigned article about the history of the Mercury recording label is less problematic, though it concentrates too much on "effects" records such as Mercury's Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture and the Civil War project, rather than their more customary releases, about which it says little.

I have long been of the opinion that audiophiles don't love music nearly as much as they do their toys.  My evidence for this is the choice of music that Classic Records, Analogue Productions, Chesky, and many of the Deccas and DGGs from Speakers Corner.  (The titles from EMI/Testament are a welcome exception.) Most audiophile reissues are chosen to show off one's audio system rather than for the exquisite passion that informs the classical music tradition.  Where are the great recordings of solo piano, violin or voice?  A Diabelli Variations from Ludwig van, a string quintet of Mozart, a Mendelssohn D minor Piano Trio, a Mahler Kindertotenlieder?  Many composers have felt most strongly about their chamber, vocal and instrumental works.  This new Mercury set is symphonic, but the intimate and passionate nature of this music argues eloquently for its commercial success.

If these reissued LPs do not possess quite the same loveliness of tone as the originals, what can I say but that at least they aren't CDs; and if you don't already have mint copies of the originals, why wait 'til hell freezes over.  After all, the music is the important thing, and these entries from Speakers Corner are as good as it will get for many of us.  peaking of sonics, by the way, the DGG recording of Wozzeck with Fischer-Dieskau and Evelyn Lear (who makes a better Marie), is readily available complete on 2 LPs, generally cheap and in excellent sound.



Performance: (or deduct half a note for the soprano)

Sound Quality:


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