The Gemlike Music of Webern 

The Gemlike Music of Webern 

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“This is a song for you alone”: such is the invitational opening line of the first of five songs set to Stefan George poems (Op. 3) by Anton Webern (1883-1945). It’s one of thirty-one works in which the Austrian composer distilled his musical inheritance—an odd combination of post-Wagnerian Romanticism and medieval polyphony—into a bracing new style of crystalline compression that exerted a towering influence over modern composition after the Second World War. That influence has since waned, but this is no deterrent to the conductor Julian Wachner, whose annual “Time’s Arrow” festival, at Trinity Church Wall Street, is mounting a two-season traversal of Webern’s complete works. It begins with three days of concerts (Sept. 12-14) featuring the superb Choir of Trinity Wall Street and its associated new-music ensemble, NOVUS NY.

If the idea of Webern’s “complete works” sounds daunting, it’s not a matter of duration: even those who know little of Webern’s compositions are aware that most of them are extremely short, haikulike in their gnomic concentration. It is, rather, in the style of the music that the gauntlet is thrown down, for both performers and audience. The melodic lines are jagged and disjunct, the language is proudly atonal, and the textures can take canonic counterpoint to a fetishistic extreme. The series of small-scale vocal works (Opp. 12-18) in which Webern gradually adapted the strict system of twelve-tone technique that he virtually co-invented with his revered teacher, Arnold Schoenberg—all of which are included in Wachner’s first batch of concerts—reach a dizzying height of abstraction. These gleaming compositions fulfill the high-modernist beau ideal; they exist for themselves alone.

And yet there are many pieces that, within their rigorous confines, yearn for intimacy. Gestures of gentleness and warmth keep breaking into works like the First Cantata, with texts by the poet Hildegard Jone, who shared with Webern, an alpine enthusiast, an intense love for nature at its most pure; carefully chosen timbres of strings and percussion with solo brass and woodwinds caress as often as they collide. The Symphony has an Apollonian benevolence worthy of Satie; the Concerto for Nine Instruments and the Variations for Orchestra have drama and excitement to spare. Wachner’s concerts, which also feature works by such Webern-loving kindred spirits as Sebastian Currier and Sofia Gubaidulina, will be difficult to ignore. ♦

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September 1, 2017 at 10:06AM

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