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Not One Misstep on the Winding Path Back to Schoenberg

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ahalf-century after his death, Arnold Schoenberg's ghost still haunts most modern composers. But his legacy is complex -- and in a brilliant concert at the Austrian Embassy on Wednesday night, violinist Alexander Gheorghiu and pianist Florian Mueller showed how the father of 12-tone music has been affirmed, repudiated and finally transcended by the composers who came in his wake.

The program got off to an explosive start with Schoenberg's "Fantasie," Op. 47. Angular and angry, it's eight minutes of everything that's most hated about modern music. But it was followed by gentler works from his disciples. Anton Webern's spare, delicate Four Pieces, Op.7, were played with impeccable musicianship and grace, and the "Deux ┬┐clats" by Friedrich Cerha were beautifully played, full of quirky pizzicato effects and the occasional elbow-to-the-keyboard crash.

Then the repudiation. John Adams famously parodied Schoenberg in his Chamber Symphony and "Harmonielehre" -- pieces far more interesting, unfortunately, than his three-part "Road Movies" on this program. Made up of a minimalist hoedown, some existential brooding and a dense perpetuum mobile, they thumbed their nose at Schoenberg without actually saying all that much.

And finally, there was transcendence. Schoenberg once dismissed John Cage as "not a composer," but as Muller showed in a spectacular performance of the 1958 "Concert" for Piano and Orchestra -- with its extraordinary sonic beauty and intricate nuances -- Cage could echo the older composer while leaving him in the dust. And Cage's "two6" for violin and piano, which closed the program, was so profoundly delicate and ethereal that it seemed to radiate from another world.

-- Stephen Brookes

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