Webern Complete Edition
With the exception of the performances of the Piano Variations, the piano piece and the Kinderstuck (by Krystian Zimerman), all of these recordings have already appeared on previous CDs over the last five years. Their assemblage is a fitting tribute to Pierre Boulez's conspicuous championship of Webern's music throughout his conducting career; and from DG's point of view it aims, no doubt, to supersede Boulez's previous anthology on Sony Classical (formerly CBS Masterworks). Webern devotees will probably have collected most of these recordings already, and for them the expense of this new set is probably superfluous ... unless the temptation to own yet another 'complete Webern' proves irresistible.
This new set certainly changes one's perception of the composer. The endearing compactness of the old Sony set (which contains, remember, only the works with opus numbers, and a small selection of transcriptions) emphasised the impression of Webern as aphorist, the pocket-composer: a whole life's work on three CDs. Now there are six, and the opus numbers are interspersed with a quantity of music that Webern did not see fit to publish. In some cases (notably the juvenilia, instructive but uneven) one can see why, but in the case of the Five Pieces for orchestra of 1913, the choice to exclude them from the set that became Op 10 may have had more to do with practical considerations than purely aesthetic ones. And then there are pieces (like the tiny Kinderstuck, I suppose) that the composer might have issued had he been given the time or the opportunity to do so. The point is that the linear development which the opus numbers so clearly emphasise often seems to have been deliberately subverted here: in the disc of music for string quartet and trio, for example, the programming flits between the early tonal pieces and the 'expressionistic' sets of Opp 5 and 9, before settling into the quasi- and strictly serial worlds of Op 20 onwards. It is a much more diverse picture of Webern than that of the earlier set, in some ways a more interesting one; and yet some listeners may find the result a little confusing. In any case, despite the improvement in sound quality, despite Boulez's more expansive approach to the music, the new set does not really supersede the earlier one, which can claim historical precedence, includes a sensitive booklet-note from a former student, Humphrey Searle, and perceptive annotations on the individual works by Susan Bradshaw. Most precious of all is the recording of Webern himself conducting his arrangements of Schubert's Dances. Finally, the song performances by Heather Harper and Charles Rosen on the old set have aged very little. To the serious collector the two sets are complementary, not rivals.
Space does not permit a detailed comparison of individual pieces with the alternative recordings. In fact, it is surprising just how many fine recordings of certain chunks of the repertory are already in existence. The string quartets stand out in this regard, and I for one would not want to be without the Alban Berg Quartet's old Teldec LP of the works with opus numbers (which sadly does not include the magnificent Trio, Op 20, but a wonderfully taut and tense performance of Op 5), or the Quartetto Italiano's account of the Langsamer Satz and the Quartet of 1905; its fuller sound seems more suited to these late-romantic pieces than does the Emerson's. Boulez's own contributions are of course worth having, although in the uppermost reaches of their register the violins of the Berlin Philharmonic seem to lose their focus. (In fact, the only audible blips that I registered seem to involve the string section: the pizzicatos at the start of the Passacaglia are not absolutely together, and the same problem occurs more seriously at bar 174 of the Variations, Op 30). And since completeness seems to be the name of the game here, I don't understand why Boulez has included the orchestral version of Op 5 (which tends in the fast movements to lack the drive of the string quartet rendition), and the arrangement of the Bach fugue from the Musical Offering, but not the slimmed-down version of Op 6, which is seldom heard nowadays.
Since these recordings have been appraised elsewhere, I will confine myself to registering some personal impressions, and a couple of reservations. Among the highlights are the orchestral pieces, Op 6 (the spine-chilling climax to No 4 must be heard) ; the String Trio, Op 20, whose gestural eloquence and concision are exemplary; the Symphony, Op 21, exquisitely performed here; and very nearly the whole of the final disc's delightful sequence of Webern's shortest pieces.
Another positive feature is the booklet and its packaging, which is as enjoyable in its own way as that of the Sony set: well-documented, packed with pictures, handsome and (as far as I can tell) durable. The move away from those unwieldly multiple jewel-cases is greatly to be welcomed. The disappointments? First, the recorded sound of Zimerman's contributions I mentioned earlier: they are boomy and overly resonant, and are in any case in total contrast with the recording style of everything else in the set. And the arrangements of Bach, Schubert and Webern (the orchestral version of Op 5) seem to lack conviction: the Bach lacks colour, the Webern lacks urgency in the faster movements, and Schubert doesn't swing.
The conclusion? One must emphasise again that this set contains hardly anything that isn't available elsewhere; having said which, if it found its way into my Christmas stocking you wouldn't hear me complain.