There’s a priceless moment worth recalling in Tony Hancock’s classic radio show ‘The Poetry Society’, which wryly focuses the ‘fifties beatnik-style avant garde and the numerous well-meaning pseuds who followed it. “Are you musical?” asks Bill Kerr, addressing a typically OTT Fenella Fielding (who plays the Goth character ‘Greta’). “I can only tolerate Bartók and Weber,” smoulders Fielding, cocking a snook at the so-called musical bourgeoisie, or so she thinks. But hold on, why nineteenth-century Weber, who although highly original is hardly a beacon for the modern avant garde? Surely, she meant Webern, that twentieth-century Austrian master of finely tooled atonal miniatures who, when the Russian Army neared Vienna towards the end of the Second World War, fled to Mittersill near Salzburg and was accidentally shot and killed there by a soldier in the U.S. occupation forces. He was just 61 years old.
As it happens ‘The Poetry Society’ was first aired in December 1959, the very month when ‘The Complete Works of Anton Webern’ was first released in the UK via Philips and the publishers Alfred A. Kalmus and that has recently re-appeared, newly remastered, on Sony Classical (19439911902, 4 cds, c£17.25). I say ‘complete’ though strictly speaking that’s not the case, as there are various early works that had yet to surface and would only make it onto disc, in a ‘complete’ context, years later principally when Pierre Boulez twice revisited the same territory (first for Sony, then for Deutsche Grammophon).
Luckily my local music library at The Boroughs, Hendon, bought a copy of the set for stock so that this ever-curious teenager was able to borrow the ‘complete’ edition (the charm of that all-encompassing term) and hunker down in my tiny bedroom to audition Webern’s rarefied world. I’ll never forget my initial sampling of the first track, the Passacaglia for large orchestra, just a few quiet pizzicato chords to start with, then a passionate 10-minute onslaught, very Mahlerian as I would later discover (once Mahler 9 had entered my musical orbit). The playing was amazingly intense but then Robert Craft’s superb studio orchestra consisted of numerous players who had, or would, appear on soundtracks, jazz and ballad albums and experimental orchestral collections. So it was hardly surprising that although the music seemed to hail from outer space, the glowing style of Craft’s driven performance somehow made it seem familiar. And that was just for openers. Next came one of Webern’s exquisite, gnomic vocal miniatures, one of his many settings of Stefan George, Flee in light barques, sounding as if it was recorded in a local scout hut, the small vocal ensemble vibrant and intimately communicative. Then Marni Nixon arrived, all fragility and expressive intensity, again with George’s words, ‘this is a song for you alone, of childish fancies and fervent tears …’, Nixon herself, the seductive film soundtrack singing voice of Audrey Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, Jeanne Crain and Marilyn Monroe, to name but a few, sounding heartbreakingly childlike. I could imagine her clad in white under a tree at night, her pale powdery face and ghoulish upturned smile more ghostly than anything I’d ever heard in classical song …. yet, still, so beautiful.
Countless other songs beckoned as well as instrumental pieces such as the Five Pieces for String Quartet Op. 5, where mystery lay side-by-side with violence (nos. 3 and 4), the line-up including violinist Dorothy Wade who made records alongside Sarah Vaughan and Peter Nero and cellist Emmet Sergeant, whose discography finds her in collaboration with the likes of Sarah Vaughan, the Mothers of Invention, Sam Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Zappa, Jerry Goldsmith, and Henry Mancini. I say this because it helps explain why although infinitely strange Craft’s Webern allowed for a certain strain for familiarity that seemed to sugar the pill, at least while sugar was required.
The three mature orchestral works are miracles of concise articulation and colouration. Op. 6 has at its centre an ominous funeral march with so many ‘dead thumps’ (as they sound in Craft’s airless acoustic, the bass drum sitting beneath moaning brass) while the barbed Symphony seems more thrown off than performed (compare Karajan and the BPO on DG, infinitely more subtle, likewise Doráti [LSO] in the Op.10 pieces). OK I’ll grant you that Boulez and the Berlin Phil reach out for more overwhelming crescendos in Op. 6, but there’s something about Craft’s ‘black-and-white’ (mono) melodrama that kills off any sense of sensuousness. That too has its impact.
There are many more songs, some sung by Grace-Lynne Martin, an early protégé of Stravinsky, recording his works for both Columbia and Epic records (as did Nixon), two superb cantatas, pieces for violin and cello, a string trio and an early Piano Quintet, and so forth. But perhaps the ultimate ‘give-away’ track is the penultimate one, Webern’s patiently attentive orchestration of the ‘Ricercar’ from The Musical Offering, one of the truly great Bach orchestrations. That in a sense brings us back to base, the prime mover for a composer whose credo was to use as few notes as possible, though always meaningfully, the musical equivalent of Emily Dickinson, ‘telling the truth but telling it slant’ as she would have put it. Or maybe the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is a better point of reference, Wittgenstein who ended his first major work, Tractatus logico-philosophicus, with the words ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’. In Webern’s case we could adjust that closing aphorism to read ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must search among the realms of music’. And Craft’s team, for all their minor flaws, certainly make you realise that much.