The New York Times: An Ensemble Possessed by the Spirit of Schoenberg

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By STEVE SMITH
Published: September 20, 2006

It couldn’t have been easy to hide an 800-pound gorilla in an intimate recital hall, but the Ensemble XX. Jahrhundert managed to do just that in a concert it presented on Monday night at the Austrian Cultural Forum. Not a note composed by Arnold Schoenberg, a seminal figure in musical Modernism, was featured on the program. But his spirit loomed large throughout an evening that included works by his pupils, as well as by a distant descendant and a curious contemporary.

concert new york

concert New York

Schoenberg has long held the distinction of, and lately borne the opprobrium for, having invented 12-tone composition. But earlier, independently of Schoenberg, the composer Josef Matthias Hauer invented his own system for composing with all 12 tones, arranged in six-note segments he called tropes.

Mr. Hauer’s “Quintett,” a slight but alluring 1926 work for clarinet, piano and strings, demonstrated a critical difference between his music and that of Schoenberg, his proclaimed rival. Despite his formidable theory, Schoenberg was never one to let rules stand in the way of composing an effective piece. In “Quintett,” on the other hand, Mr. Hauer seemed content to press a simple melodic pattern through a series of rhythmic variations; what resulted was charming, harmonically piquant process music for a late-19th-century salon.

More famous for his latter-day phase as a leftist agitator, Hanns Eisler studied with Schoenberg early in his career. Eisler’s “14 Arten den ‘Regen’ zu Beschreiben” was drawn from a 1928 film score, which probably explains its episodic nature: pointillistic figures flitted from one player to another, with breaks for rich commentary from the piano. The work’s most attractive moments came when chance pairings — flute and cello, or clarinet and viola — surfaced amid the ceaseless boil.

Berg and Webern, Schoenberg’s foremost pupils, are usually cast as opposites: the former a Romantic, the latter a Modernist. But the ensemble’s performances of Berg’s pithy “Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano” and Webern’s expressive “Four Pieces for Violin and Piano” underscored that both composers sprang from a common artery.

Axel Seidelmann’s “Li-Yan,” for flute, violin and piano, extended Webern’s aphoristic idiom, the work’s breathy wisps and whistles punctuated by the deepest of silences, which only made its unexpectedly melodious climaxes all the more striking.

The ensemble, filled with sharp young players, did well by all of these daunting pieces. Any momentary insecurity of tone was more than compensated for by a palpable sense of commitment.