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Stefan Blunier: Schönberg rooted in Romanticism

img  Tobias

Why did you decide to record Schönberg for your debut album with the Beethoven Orchester Bonn?
On the one hand, simply because he is one of my favourite composers. On the other, because he is definitely under-rated in Germany: Even though Schönberg still hasn't entered the wider public awareness, he remains one of the key composers of the 20th century to me.
I was trying to avoid arbitrariness and to raise the bar by including material that was either inconvenient or would raise a few eyebrows. Thanks to the inclusion of the „Notturno“ and the six Lieder, there are two works on the album which are hard to come by. Even the five orchestral pieces op. 16 are anything but well-known. So the CD in a way includes a blend between kitschy, expressive and romantic material as well as an adaptation - and each of them is marked to a different compositional approach.

The  press release calls the album a „fragmentary portrait“. Which character traits of the composer are coming to the fore here?

Foremost, his incredible craftsmanship shines through. This mattered to me, because there seems to be the prejudice that contemporary composers are oblivious to this aspect of their trade, just like contemporary painters are regularly suspected of not being able to draw realistically. In this particular case, however, the exact opposite is true. Which means that the atonal element in Schönberg's music is not a cover-up-operation but rather a gradual development rooted in the period of romanticism. The Orchestral Pieces op. 16, for example, are caught in the middle between these poles. They're not yet dodecaphonic, but they're no longer romantic either. The only thing that's missing from the four different angles we're approaching his music from is the element of entertainment. Schönberg, after all, wrote quite a bit of music for revues and other entertainment-formats. But there was no space for that on the CD, and neither was there for a pure piece of 12-tone-music. So the album is firmly characterised by Schönberg's transformation as a composer.

Thanks to the „Notturno“, the album also includes a world premiere recording ...

Strictly speaking, we're not talking about a sensational discovery here. I keep in touch with what publishing houses are announcing and make the occasional order. I also listen to a lot of CDs and order scores. Afterwards, I will carefully file this material away and return to my lists from time to time. A lot of preparatory work goes into this, but that doesn't mean that it's necessarily an archaeological process. In contrast to other conductors, I am simply looking for new ways. So there's no big mystery to how this premiere recording of a Schönberg composition came about.

Does the „Notturno“ have a deeper meaning to you?

I find it to be a particularly beautiful piece of music. This little gem slightly reminds me of the quiet string-passage in „Zarathustra“, which was remarkably also written in As-Major.

Are there, to you, any immediate connections between the „Notturno“ and the other pieces included on the CD?

Again and again, people are using the term of acoustic colours when it comes to Schönberg. How to make them visible, though? I don't think one should. Rather, you have to celebrate these colours, to taste and suggest them rather than spelling things out in full. There's hardly another music which is as extreme to the point of being manic and exalted as this. Performing these colours requires a sense of courage to bring out the ugly, which a lot of musicians lack. 
Schönberg's scores are so utterly complex that you need to force yourself not to loose track. The challenge is to get things just the way he wanted them. There's a wealth of information in his scores, which can seem like an overload. You have to channel his intentions, which is usually an intellectual achievement than a musical one.

The booklet moots various ideas about why Schönberg realised the Bach-transcriptions. What's your own point of view on the subject?
The Bach-edits are part of a tradition. Schönberg's pupils arranged several works, including reductions, and performed them at private concerts. I suppose it was part of his classes, because these reductions require a precise analysis of the original work and only through a controlled sceletisation can an adequate sound-ideal be transported. Schönberg actually re-arranged some of his own works himself, mostly in phases when he suffered from a writer's block.

You seem to be working towards an extension of your repertoire with the Beethoven Orchestra ...
Indeed I am, because there are still undiscovered treasures to be dug up. On the 29th of January, I conducted Franz Schmidt's fourth symphony for the first time in Bonn and the event also marked the beginning of a new series of CDs, which will be recorded live during select gigs over the upcoming season with the Beethoven Orchester Bonn and subsequently be published by MDG.

Homepage: Beethoven Orchester Bonn
Homepage: MDG Records

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