Webern: Complete works

COMPOSERS: Webern
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Complete works
PERFORMER: Gianluca Cascioli, Oleg Maisenberg, Krystian Zimerman (piano), Gidon Kremer (violin), Clemens Hagen (cello), Françoise Pollet, Christiane Oelze (soprano); Emerson String Quartet, Ensemble InterContemporain, Berlin PO/Pierre Boulez
CATALOGUE NO: 457 637-2 Reissue (1992-5)
Back in the Sixties, Pierre Boulez masterminded a recording of Webern’s complete works for Sony. That cycle was accommodated on three CDs, as opposed to the six occupied by this recent DG project, whose individual discs have now been handsomely repackaged. The discrepancy is explained by the inclusion this time of a large number of Webern’s unpublished works. Many of them are student efforts of varying quality – songs and chamber works, as well as a large-scale orchestral piece of 1904 called Im Sommerwind which clearly shows the influence of Wagner and Strauss. There are also several rejected pieces which arose out of Webern’s work on his exquisite Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10; and a curious set of three pieces for string quartet, the first and last of them preliminary versions of two of the Six Bagatelles, Op. 9, the middle one, with soprano, clearly a lament for Webern’s mother. (Most of his compositions, he confided to Alban Berg around this time, related to her death.)

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As an appendix to the official Webern canon, the Sony edition contained his famous orchestration of the six-part Ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering, as well as Webern’s own historic performance of his arrangement of a set of German Dances by Schubert. Both pieces are included in this new DG collection, and this time round Boulez has a shot at conducting the Dances himself. The result does not leave me anxious to hear him tackle a Schubert symphony.

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For the rest, these performances are of a very high standard indeed, with Françoise Pollet’s warm soprano a definite asset in the orchestral and chamber songs, and Christiane Oelze negotiating the cruelly angular lines of the Lieder with admirable elegance. Krystian Zimerman’s fine performance of the piano Variations, Op. 27, has, alas, been let down by the engineers (it sounds far too distant), but that is an uncharacteristic lapse – indeed, the crystalline clarity of the Berlin Philharmonic’s sound is spellbinding throughout. But not even Boulez is infallible: a late clarinet entry in the second movement of the Quartet, Op. 22, causes momentary pandemonium, and the violin fails altogether to come in two bars later. Goodness knows how that take made it into the final edit.