Pianist Jacob Greenberg connects two post-Wagnerian compositional lineages on this beautifully curated release: Debussy's visceral harmonic world and the Second Viennese School's rigorous approach to pitch. He shows in his performances of both books of the Debussy Préludes and key Second Viennese works that these composers are unified by a common embrace of sensuality in music. Soprano Tony Arnold makes a guest appearance for Schoenberg's The Book of the Hanging Gardens.
|Pour le Piano: Sarabande
Pour le Piano: Sarabande
|Jacob Greenberg, piano
|Sonata, op. 1
Sonata, op. 1
|Études pour Piano: Pour les sixtes
Études pour Piano: Pour les sixtes
Préludes, Book 1Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
|Jacob Greenberg, piano
|Danseuses de Delphes
Danseuses de Delphes
|Le vent dans la plaine
Le vent dans la plaine
|"Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir"
"Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir"
|Les collines d'Anacapri
Les collines d'Anacapri
|Des pas sur la neige
Des pas sur la neige
|Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest
Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest
|La fille aux cheveux de lin
La fille aux cheveux de lin
|La sérénade interrompue
La sérénade interrompue
|La cathédrale engloutie
La cathédrale engloutie
|La danse de Puck
La danse de Puck
Variations, op. 27Anton Webern (1883-1945)
|Jacob Greenberg, piano
|I. Sehr mässig
I. Sehr mässig
|II. Sehr schnell
II. Sehr schnell
|III. Ruhig fliessend
III. Ruhig fliessend
|D'un cahier d'esquisses
D'un cahier d'esquisses
Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten, op. 15Arnold Schoenberg
|Tony Arnold, soprano, Jacob Greenberg, piano
|Unterm Schutz von dichten Blättergründen
Unterm Schutz von dichten Blättergründen
|Hain in diesen Paradiesen
Hain in diesen Paradiesen
|Als Neuling trat ich ein
Als Neuling trat ich ein
|Da meine Lippen reglos sind
Da meine Lippen reglos sind
|Saget mir, auf welchem Pfade
Saget mir, auf welchem Pfade
|Jedem Werke bin ich fürder tot
Jedem Werke bin ich fürder tot
|Angst und hoffen wechselnd mich beklemmen
Angst und hoffen wechselnd mich beklemmen
|Wenn ich heut nicht deinen Leib berühre
Wenn ich heut nicht deinen Leib berühre
|Streng ist uns das Glück
Streng ist uns das Glück
|Das schöne Beet betracht ich mir im Harren
Das schöne Beet betracht ich mir im Harren
|Als wir hinter dem beblümten Tore
Als wir hinter dem beblümten Tore
|Wenn sich bei heilger Ruh
Wenn sich bei heilger Ruh
|Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide
Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide
|Sprich nicht immer von dem Laub
Sprich nicht immer von dem Laub
|Wir bevölkerten die abenddüstern Lauben
Wir bevölkerten die abenddüstern Lauben
Préludes, Book 2Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
|Jacob Greenberg, piano
|La puerta del vino
La puerta del vino
|"Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses"
"Les fées sont d'exquises danseuses"
|Général Lavine - eccentric
Général Lavine - eccentric
|La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune
La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune
|Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.
Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.
|Les tierces alternées
Les tierces alternées
Claude Debussy and the Second Viennese composers followed different paths of philosophical development, inspired by the trends of art and literature in their age, but they were aligned by a common embrace of sensuality in music. Theirs was a strongly shared language, and my interest as a pianist is to explore fields of intersection between these two musical worlds often thought to be opposite in character. Writing for the piano, an instrument equally wide-ranging and intimate, helped all these composers to explore decadent dimensions of harmony, form, and sound color.
For this recording, Debussy’s two books of Préludes and selected individual pieces offer a chance to view the music of Arnold Schoenberg’s school, assumed to be arid and formalist, through a tinted lens. The Préludes, influenced by otherworldly Symbolist poetry and the aesthetic of ancient classical art, give snapshots of places, objects, natural phenomena, and fleeting moods. Small musical forms bely the ambition of Debussy’s endeavor: he conjures minutely detailed scenes, each of the twenty-four pieces wholly distinct in feeling.
Both Schoenberg and Anton Webern thrive in similarly miniature constructions. Schoenberg’s song cycle The Book of the Hanging Gardens portrays a doomed, desperate romance in brief tableaus set in a mythic, lush landscape. Featuring some of Schoenberg’s earliest atonal pieces, the cycle is energized by its intentional instability. Its richly ambiguous harmonic language is well-matched to Stefan George’s poetry of emotions stretched to the breaking point. The heightened poetic sensitivity is reflected in the composer’s tactile approach to sound: this can be heard especially in number 11 of the set, which depicts the lovers touching each other lightly in the afterglow of passion. This movement can be compared to the exotic flirtation of Debussy’s Voiles, and the heat of La puerta del vino.
Alban Berg’s whole-tone patterns in his early Sonata draw a clear link to Debussy. The innovative, pervasive development of a simple motive leads Berg to coloristic extremes. And Webern’s Variations finds expressive continuity and intense energy in spare sounds or silence. Webern forges a totally original piano texture: notes become points of light, forming shapes in a gorgeous void. Debussy and the Second Viennese opened music to a sensual, seductive unreality that diverse composers, to our own age, have accepted as a promise of possibility.
-- Jacob Greenberg
Pianist Jacob Greenberg's work as a soloist and chamber musician has received worldwide acclaim. A longtime member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, he has performed throughout the Americas and Europe. His solo concert series, Music at Close Range, shows his equal commitment to classics of the repertoire.
Recent highlights include a guest performance of works of György Kurtág at the International Summer Courses in Darmstadt, Germany, under the composer's guidance; concerts at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival; Boulez’s Sur Incises with the Seattle Symphony; and solo and concerto appearances with the International Contemporary Ensemble at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. Live performances have been heard on WQXR New York, BBC Radio 3, WFMT Chicago and Radio Netherlands.
As an orchestral player, Mr. Greenberg has appeared with the New York Philharmonic, Israel Philharmonic, and Australian Chamber Orchestra. He performs often with the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW. A leading pianist of modern song, he has toured extensively with soprano Tony Arnold; their 2013 recording of Olivier Messiaen's Harawi has been singled out by critics. Mr. Greenberg is also recognized as a coach for contemporary opera.
In addition to his solo albums for New Focus Recordings, which feature works from the Baroque to many new commissions, he has recorded for the Nonesuch, Sony, Bridge, Naxos, Mode, Kairos, Centaur, Tzadik, and New Amsterdam labels. Mr. Greenberg is an award-winning record producer, and has completed discs for major domestic and international labels. He is the director of the International Contemporary Ensemble's in-house TUNDRA imprint. As a composer, he makes recorded pieces with spoken and sung texts. His podcast, Intégrales, explores meaningful intersections of music and daily city life.
Mr. Greenberg is on the faculty of the Tanglewood Music Center, and has taught at Hunter College, City University of New York, The Juilliard School, and the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is a graduate of Oberlin College, where he earned degrees in music and religion, and he completed his master's and doctoral degrees at Northwestern University, where he studied with Ursula Oppens. Please visit jacobgreenberg.net.http://www.jacobgreenberg.net
Celebrated as a “luminary in the world of chamber music and art song” (Huffington Post), Tony Arnold is internationally acclaimed as a leading proponent of contemporary music in concert and recording as a “convincing, mesmerizing soprano” (Los Angeles Times) who “has a broader gift for conveying the poetry and nuance behind outwardly daunting contemporary scores” (Boston Globe). Her unique blend of vocal virtuosity and communicative warmth, combined with wide-ranging skills in education and leadership were recognized with the 2015 Brandeis Creative Arts Award, given in appreciation of “excellence in the arts and the lives and works of distinguished, active American artists.” Arnold’s extensive chamber music repertory includes major works written for her voice by Georges Aperghis, George Crumb, Brett Dean, Jason Eckardt, Gabriela Lena Frank, Josh Levine, George Lewis, Philippe Manoury, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, Christopher Theofanidis, Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, John Zorn, and numerous others. She is a member of the intrepid International Contemporary Ensemble and enjoys regular guest appearances with leading ensembles, presenters, and festivals worldwide.
With more than 30 discs to her credit, Arnold has recorded a broad segment of the modern vocal repertory with esteemed chamber music colleagues. Her recording of George Crumb’s iconic Ancient Voices of Children (Bridge) received a 2006 Grammy nomination. She is a first prize laureate of both the Gaudeamus International and the Louise D. McMahon competitions. A graduate of Oberlin College and Northwestern University, Arnold was twice a fellow of the Aspen Music Festival as both a conduc- tor and singer. She currently is on the faculties of the Peabody Conservatory and the Tanglewood Music Center.
Jacob Greenberg, a longtime pianist for the International Contemporary Ensemble, is skilled in cutting-edge repertoire. Already in 2018, he has appeared on the premiere recording of Steve Reich’s “Pulse,” as well as on the composer Wang Lu’s “Cloud Intimacy” — a restive composition, inspired by the mechanisms of online dating. But Mr. Greenberg is equally compelling in more familiar pieces. In “Hanging Gardens,” a new double set from New Focus Recordings, he dives into Debussy, as well as works of the Second Viennese School. The entire album is imaginative, but I’ve been returning frequently to his sparkling version of Debussy’s “Les Collines d’Anacapri,” from the first book of Préludes.
Some of the articulations here have a stark insistence worthy of a Minimalist-minded player. There’s also a slinky seductiveness to the way he handles some of the folk-tune reveries midway through. This isn’t a retransmission of vintage ideas about Debussy, which makes it all the more gorgeous.
-- Seth Colter Walls, NY Times, 7.27.2018
Well it’s been 100 years since Claude Debussy (1862-1918) left the earthly plane and anniversaries are good times for a re-evaluation. Usually this just means issuing recordings of a given composers works, mostly the composer’s most popular. Jacob Greenberg has chosen to record Debussy’s Preludes for Piano Books I and II (1909-1913). But that alone seems a bit pedestrian so he adds in Alban Berg’s (1885-1935) Op. 1 Piano Sonata (1909), Anton Webern’s (1883-1945) masterful Variations for Piano (1936), and Arnold Schoenberg’s (1874-1951) Book of the Hanging Gardens Op. 15 (1908-9) as well as a few additional Debussy pieces. Greenberg is a sort of refugee from the International Contemporary Ensemble. For this recording he also conscripts the fine soprano (and fellow ICE refugee) Tony Arnold. These two have already amassed quite a few recordings of repertory from this era.
This mix provides a context for the listener which shows where the Preludes fit historically and demonstrates some of the similarities in sound between these early 20th Century works. We hear music written between 1908 and 1936 by four composers. Hearing these works together gives the listener a sense of how some of the best “contemporary” compositions of this brief era sounded. Indeed there are similarities here and one can see the emerging style which would become known as “expressionism”. It is clearer how this emerged from Debussy and Ravel’s “impressionism” when you hear related works from the same era.
This reviewer had not been familiar with Schoenberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens. It is one of the less performed of his works. These songs have a militantly atonal sound. Vocalist extraordinaire Tony Arnold puts real muscle into her reading of these songs. The disc is worth acquiring for her performance alone.
In some ways this cycle appears to have been Schoenberg’s Tristan und Isolde meaning that he had stretched the limits of tonality and, unlike Wagner, he chose to develop a method which would ensure that there is no tonal center in his music. He developed his method of 12 tone composition and rolled out his first example of this new method in 1925.
What is striking is that this Schoenberg song cycle dates from pretty much the same time as the Debussy Preludes and Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata. One gets a sense of some of the tensions involved here. Try to imagine being in the audience and hearing the wide stylistic differences between these two works and realizing that they are essentially from the same era. Add in the much later Variations by Webern and one gets a sense of how far music could go, stylistically, based on Schoenberg’s methods.
Obviously the Debussy Preludes are the main focus here and these are acknowledged as classics of the repertoire. They are most ably performed here but what struck this listener the most was the sound of those preludes in the context of the other pieces here which were part of that same 30 year span. One can begin to hear perhaps some affinity between the Debussy and the later thornier harmonies and rhythms that typify the expressionistic style which would dominate much of the mid-twentieth century.
This is a fabulously entertaining recording and a sort of music history lesson as well. Greenberg is a strong and assertive musician with an obvious feel for these pieces. His choice of repertoire makes this a particularly good choice for the listener who is just beginning to explore this musical era and an eye-opening program for the seasoned listener. Great set.
-Allan J. Cronin, 9.26.2018, New Music Buff
Rather than the customary bifurcation, Impressionism and Expressionism are related to one another on Hanging Gardens, pianist Jacob Greenberg’s loving curated, beautifully performed double CD. He is joined by soprano Tony Arnold for Arnold Schoenberg’s song cycle The Book of the Hanging Gardens, a work that epitomizes the overlap that occurs between the aforementioned styles. Their performance rivals the other best one on record, by Jan DeGaetani and Gilbert Kalish.
Greenberg authoritatively performs a number of works by Debussy, including both books of Preludes. His renditions of the Berg Sonata and Webern Variations are also compelling. Once again, he finds subtle connections between the atmosphere of the Second Viennese School composers and their Parisian counterpart Debussy. It makes the works seem airier, more supple, and like one is listening afresh.
-Christian Carey, 12.30.18, Sequenza21
In sequencing this two-hours-plus collection, pianist Jacob Greenberg could have elected to place the Claude Debussy material on disc one and the Second Viennese School pieces on the second. As orderly as such an arrangement would have been, it also would have undermined one of the project's fundamental goals: to show how much their respective musics share, not just with respect to textural richness and sensuality but compositionally, too. Obviously extreme differences in compositional approach separate Debussy from Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, yet "Hanging Gardens" goes a long way towards showing the divide to be less than normally presumed. Greenberg's desire to “explore fields of intersection between these two musical worlds often thought to be opposite in character” is effectively realized by the recording.
His discography is formidable, including as it does the many releases he's participated in as a longtime member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) as well as the impressive releases he's issued as a solo artist on labels such as Naxos, Tzadik, and New Amsterdam. A quick scan of that discography reveals an artist strongly committed to the contemporary classical tradition (Crumb, Carter, Reich, Messiaen) as well as classics of the repertoire; how telling that one of those discs pairs Schumann and Busoni.
Certainly there's no shortage of recordings of Debussy's Préludes from which to choose; one of the things that makes Greenberg's recording valuable is his and soprano Tony Arnold's performance of Schoenberg's Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens). What makes the proposition even more appealing is that in their hands the music exudes a sensuality that's well-nigh palpable, and the inclusion of the piece bolsters one's impression of "Hanging Gardens" as an especially well-curated release. Generally, the aridity that's typically assumed to characterize works by Schoenberg and his famous pupils is downplayed, with Greenberg purposefully emphasizing their music's emotionally expressive potential.
The set couples Debussy's two books of Préludes (twenty-four pieces in total) and assorted individual pieces with selections from the Second Viennese School; for the record, it's worth noting that while the four composers‘ names are displayed in the same size on the cover, it's Debussy and Schoenberg who predominate, with a single setting by Berg and three short pieces by Webern rounding out the release. Be prepared to settle in comfortably as forty-six tracks in total are presented.
As an indication of just how thoughtfully sequenced "Hanging Gardens" is, Greenberg follows his sensitive reading of Debussy's Sarabande with Berg's Sonata, op. 1, whose dramatic tonal colours and contrasts the pianist brings to vivid life in a thoroughly engaged performance. Even at this early stage, a through-line of sorts between the composers' respective works emerges, with the visceral, harmonically fecund world essayed by Debussy complemented by the whole-tone patterns of Berg's haunting piece. When Webern's Variations appears after the twelve settings in Debussy's first book of Préludes, one is struck by how seamless the transition is between the pieces, with the harmonic adventurousness of the latter's material forming a natural segue to Webern's miniatures, however formally different their respective material is.
A magnificent range of moods and stylistic approaches is encompassed by the Préludes, for which Debussy drew for inspiration from Symbolist poetry and ancient classical art; some of the intensely aromatic settings in the first book are delicate and gentle (Danseuses de Delphes) whereas others are querulous and mystery-laden (Voiles); the playful and exuberant sides of his music also are well-accounted for (La danse de Puck), as are the stately (La fille aux cheveux de lin) and dramatic (La cathédrale engloutie).
On disc two, Greenberg eases the listener in with a lovely reading of Debussy's D'un cahier d'esquisses, after which Schoenberg's song-cycle appears. In The Chicago Tribune's estimation, “anything sung by soprano Tony Arnold is worth hearing,” and the sentiment's certainly supported by her performance in this case. The Book of the Hanging Gardens, its fifteen songs based on texts by Stefan George, presents no small number of challenges to a vocalist, harmonically and otherwise, but Arnold meets them splendidly. In her handling of the atonal material, she demonstrates a remarkable technical command; even better, her expressiveness captures the tone of the German texts, which, set in a verdant outdoor setting, have to do with romantic passion and its emotional extremes (imagine, perhaps, Oskar Kokoschka's Bride of the Wind translated into musical form). Close connections in dynamics and form between text and music resonate throughout, and Arnold's performance is abetted considerably by Greenberg's, whose playing is sympathetic and supportive in the extreme.
Coming as it does after the song-cycle, the second book of Préludes can't help but feel a bit anticlimactic, though one does quickly re-acclimatize oneself to Debussy's world after Schoenberg's comparatively destabilizing work. As with the first book, the second sees the composer ranging widely across richly contrasting terrain, from the wistful and elegant (Bruyères) to the spirited and playful (Général Lavine - eccentric). In the book's most curious twist, a little bit of “God Save the Queen” makes its ways into Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C., its title a reference to the protagonist of Dickens' The Pickwick Papers.
As mentioned, there are any number of recordings of Debussy's Préludes available from which to choose. What most recommends "Hanging Gardens", then, isn't necessarily Greenberg's handling of the Debussy material, credible though it might be, but the coupling of it with that of the Second Viennese School and the Schoenberg song cycle in particular. Above all else, it's this inspired idea that helps mark it as a truly special release.
-Ron Schepper, 10.18, textura
FIVE QUESTIONS WITH JACOB GREENBERG
Pianist Jacob Greenberg is a longtime member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) (and the director of its in-house Tundra imprint) but also a solo artist of considerable renown. Albums by the Oberlin College and Northwestern University graduate have appeared on Nonesuch, Sony, Naxos, Tzadik, New Focus Recordings, and New Amsterdam, among others, featuring works by contemporary composers such as Elliott Carter and György Kurtág as well as Schumann, Mozart, and Beethoven. A major addition to the Brooklyn-based artist's discography is his recent two-disc set Hanging Gardens, which features the pianist performing pieces by Debussy, Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg, the latter represented by the remarkable song-cycle Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens); Greenberg's joined on the piece by soprano Tony Arnold, who also partnered with him on a 2013 recording of Olivier Messiaen's Harawi. textura spoke recently with the pianist about Hanging Gardens and why the pairing of Debussy and the Second Viennese composers turned out to be so complementary.
1. In the liner notes you wrote for Hanging Gardens, you state that despite the differences between Debussy and the Second Viennese composers (Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg) in musical philosophy and approach, they're aligned by, in your words, “a common embrace of sensuality in music.” It wouldn't take much to convince most listeners of that quality in Debussy's music, but it probably wouldn't be the first word those same listeners would use to describe Schoenberg's. Could you elaborate on how the music these composers wrote is, in your estimation, sensual?
The clues are everywhere. To start, a listener needs to connect the Second Viennese with their most immediate musical ancestors, Brahms and Mahler. Arnold Schoenberg was committed to continuing the legacy of Austro-German music, and he wrote hyper-expressive pieces in increasingly concentrated forms. It's a Romantic sensibility, with more changeability and eccentricity, and, notably, an intense sensitivity to musical texture; this is where the influence of art and literature comes in. Schoenberg's correspondence with Kandinsky makes clear the painterly link between his work and Expressionist art, and Schoenberg's openness to Symbolist poetry in Pierrot Lunaire shows him to be under the same literary influence as Debussy. In the Society for Private Musical Performances, Schoenberg's concert series in Vienna, Debussy and Ravel were programmed constantly.
So while it's entirely possible to play the music of Schoenberg and his students in a dry manner—which, to generalize, was the early performance practice of the Second Viennese School—one can't ignore the advances of performers like Boulez, who not only humanized these composers, but revealed their amazing orchestral imagination and the depth of their harmonic palette. I think that few pianists have approached Second Viennese piano music—which can sound the driest of all, if one tries—with an ear to sound colour and an awareness of counterpoint that, to me, is like layered strokes of paint on canvas. Those are some of the most striking aspects of the music, and they're the things that can really entrance a listener.
To mention the pieces I play on this album: Alban Berg's Sonata is defined by its passion and decadence. It has a wide-ranging keyboard style that's full of surging melodies, sumptuous rolled chords, and surprising whole-tone harmonies. Anton Webern's Variations, by contrast, creates a spare yet truly three-dimensional piano texture. Notes and chords are like points of coloured light, some delicate, some blazing. I'll say more about Schoenberg's The Book of the Hanging Gardens later.
2. You also write that the Debussy selections on the release “offer a chance to view the music of Arnold Schoenberg's school, assumed to be arid and formalist, through a tinted lens.” How specifically do the Debussy works presented enable the listener to hear the music of the Second Viennese composers in a newly refracted manner?
As I've curated the order of pieces on the album, I mean for the transitions to give some insight. Debussy's "Sarabande" from Pour le Piano leads to Berg's Sonata, which begins in the same dreamy mood in triple meter. I go from the Berg to one of the most abstract of the Debussy Études (“Pour les sixtes”), which harmonically wanders through fragmented episodes of agitation and stillness. One can draw lots of comparisons between the Debussy Préludes and the Second Viennese pieces with regard to their textures and moods. Just a few personal associations that I can highlight: I hear Webern's concentrated, melodically expressive phrasing in pieces like “Des pas sur la neige” and “Canope,” and I connect Berg's extravagance to “Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest” and “Feux d'artifice.” Context is everything when listening, and it forms our tastes and opinions about music. It's a pleasure to curate a listening experience on my self-produced albums.
3. Given that there are a number of vocal settings by Schoenberg you could have chosen for the recording, what made you decide on Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens) as opposed to something like Pierrot Lunaire?
I've played The Book of the Hanging Gardens with soprano Tony Arnold for many years. The poetry by Stefan George is singularly passionate, and the backdrop of the cycle is the lush, mysterious Hanging Gardens of Babylon, or an imagined ancient landscape similar to it. The songs are as evocative of romantic love as they are of physical sensation. The song I often talk about is number 11 in the cycle, which depicts the two lovers touching each other lightly in the afterglow of passion. The tactile delicacy of the music feels like breaths and whispers. Elsewhere in the piece, the piano writing is impetuous, and gives physical shape to the poetry's obsession, longing, and desperation. For me, therefore, the only way to describe the music is in terms of sensuality. The piece also goes to such extremes: the last song's illustration of the central character's banishment to a barren wasteland will haunt me forever. On the recording, the end of the song cycle is followed by Book Two of the Debussy Préludes, starting with “Brouillards,” which shares the Schoenberg cycle's harmonic ambiguity and vivid sense of place.
4. I don't mean to oversimplify, but I recall that when the music of Glass and Reich started to gain attention there was in the air a corresponding conviction that their tonal music symbolized a tacit rejection of the direction the music had taken under Schoenberg's influence and that soon enough his works would be little more than historical footnotes. Yet here we are a century removed from the writing of his pieces and not only are we still listening to them many have become part of the standard repertoire. How do you account for the longevity and staying power of his music?
My immersion in all kinds of music has convinced me not only of the essentialness of the Second Viennese aesthetic in music's evolution, but the potency of the distinct musical personalities of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, who truly can be embraced as warmly as Debussy has been embraced. The three are so very different, and their music is a fantastic reflection of character, showing how each of them was a study in contradictions. One can't forge a new style without showing allegiance to the past, and each composer wore this conflict in his own way. So it's that depth of character that draws us in; it speaks to people differently, but memorably, and is important to artistic longevity.
And yes, the music is often jarring, and is meant to be. But one doesn't love Schumann just because he composed in a generally tonal style; one loves him for all his quirks. Likewise, I love Debussy because I sense that underneath his music's beauty is a restlessness, always seeking new dimensions of experience. To allude to Schoenberg's written essays, style and idea are completely linked, and it's the quality of the composers' communication that makes me think deeply about them. One can listen with the same basic criteria, the same standard of appreciation, applied in all directions. And with familiarity of music comes understanding, maybe nowhere more than with the Second Viennese composers.
5. A scan of the discography at your site shows that in both your solo releases and the ones you've issued with International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), with whom you've been a longtime member, the focus has largely been on contemporary material and living composers. What prompted you to commit so fervently to the contemporary period from the beginning of your career as opposed to eras associated with Bach, Mozart, and Schumann (even though pieces by them also have been recorded by you)?
I don't think it's an either/or. I came to be involved in new music in the most traditional way, through historical listening: I was curious about contemporary composers' influences and lineage, and those things gave me some useful inroads. But to return to my earlier point, it's the distinctiveness of a composer's language that fascinates me. When I work as a pianist with young composers, I'm drawn to a creative voice that can uniquely intersect with my performing personality. In that sense, I listen in the same way to Mozart as to composers whom I and my ensemble commission for new work. The question is always the same: What makes music special and worthwhile?
The challenge of performing is a challenge of identification. How can you enlarge yourself to encompass a new language, to find yourself in something unexplored? I've found that I most identify with composers whom I believe to revel in conflict—however submerged—and are thereby revolutionary and radical in a particular way. I'm also attracted to the challenges of new music because I think that dissonance has a greater probability of truth than comfortable sounds. But everything needs to be shaped by expert hands and ears. In this era, as in all others, most art is poorly conceived. I find a lot of optimism, though, in fostering new work, and composing myself. I'm also terribly spoiled by the vastness of the piano repertoire; there's never any excuse to play bad music, or teach it to my students. So I try to choose wisely. Fortunately, my tastes are discerning but also pretty broad, so I'm never at a loss.
-Ron Schepper, 10.18, textura
If one went by the names on the cover of pianist Jacob Greenberg's two-disc set Hanging Gardens, one might wonder if Debussy were the odd man out. After all, of the four composers featured Debussy was the impressionist, while Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were pioneers of the Second Viennese School, not only tending towards expressionist painting but also favouring an atonal approach to harmonic conception. However, the connection between the four men is deep and born of the desire to look beyond mainstream Western traditions as a way of expanding the vocabulary of music, the vividness of Symbolist poetry and above all an over-whelming sense of the elemental beauty of indeterminate harmonies.
The centerpiece of this repertoire is Schoenberg's Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, a song cycle based on the poetry of German Symbolist poet Stefan George. The work is a telling illustration of Schoenberg's search for new modes of expression, which though unified poetically, tend to complete a musical statement within the frame of a miniature, with miniatures succeeding one another without developing a broad narrative pattern. But Greenberg shapes this work, as Schoenberg himself declared writing it: seeking beauty and sacrificing everything to it with the ripples of atonality and dissonance that come with it. Tony Arnold's agile, luminous soprano voice is ideal and sings with power and subtlety. The Berg Sonata Opus I with traces of Liszt and - unsurprisingly - Schoenberg, manipulates tiny fragments of melody and rhythm into a statement dense with dramatic gesture and emotional power. And Webern's Variations Op.27 are packed with incident and crafted like an overture, which enhances its dramatic potential.
Greenberg appears to be ever the outstanding interpreter of fin de siècle French piano music and his wonderfully lucid and fluent pianism seems perfectly suited to Debussy's quicksilver imagination. His accounts of both the Études and Préludes are astonishing. The Préludes indicate an affinity with the allusive world of the composer's Images from several years earlier. The Études are more technically demanding and Greenberg, with marvellous gradations of dynamics and timbre, seems perfectly suited to this, Debussy's most macroscopic piano music.
-Raul da Gama, 11.2018, WholeNote Magazine
Pianist Jacob Greenberg, a longtime proponent of modern music, here presents a large program of Debussy with members of the New Vienna School tossed in for contrast. He begins with the Debussy Sarabande, then moves into the Berg Piano Sonata before presenting Debussy’s Pour les sixtes and first book of Préludes, then returning to the 12-tone material.
He has a nice style and touch, though he does not, to my ears, feel any of the Debussy pieces from the inside. Apparently, he is of the mindset that Impressionist music should be played objectively, as should the modern music he so clearly loves. This is evident from the way he plays the Berg Sonata—the same basic touch and feeling. He imparts a warm sound to the Berg but plays it with more outward energy than the Debussy.
Most of the Préludes go a bit better than the Sarabande or Pour les sixtes. As the cycle progresses, Greenberg seems to become more involved with the music, even using pedal a lot more (as in “Voiles”), which brings out the music’s color and mood very well. “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’oust” is played with considerable muscle and vigor. He does not, however, quite bring off the crescendo-decrescendo of “La cathedral engloutie” quite as well as Walter Gieseking and Michael Korstick did.
Greenberg does a fine job on the Webern Variations, however, and with Schoenberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens we enter a strange and mysterious world, thanks in large measure to the outstanding singing of Tony Arnold. My regular readers know how highly I esteem this great artist; she is the modern-day Bethany Beardslee with a sweeter timbre. Her musicianship, diction, musical style and interpretive qualities are virtually nonpareil nowadays—even better, in my view, than the outstanding Finnish soprano Anu Komsi, who I also treasure in her own way. Arnold and Greenberg prod and complement each other throughout this cycle in a way I’ve not heard before; even the famous recording of this music by Helen Vanni with Glenn Gould cannot best this performance in its subtle modifications of the musical line. This is a truly masterful recording of a great and, unfortunately, underrated work.
We then move on to Book II of the Préludes, which Greenberg also plays with some vigor, again occasionally missing the impressionistic side of things (i.e., “Ondine”) but largely successful. In essence, however, I personally feel that this set is most valuable for his performances of the more modern works, and especially The Book of the Hanging Gardens which is incomparably masterful.
This is titled “Hanging Gardens”. Debussy’s 24 Preludes alone are often found on a single CD. When on two discs, usually there is significant additional material, almost always other Debussy. Here the French and New Viennese School composers are from the same time period. As a music student taking the required Music History course, I remember memorizing lists of characteristics that differentiate Impressionist, Post-romantic and the New Viennese School. Now, after 45 years of learning and performing dozens of Debussy songs, the 15 songs in Schoenberg’s Hanging Gardens appeal to my sensibilities much more than back then.
I still find Webern’s 1936 Variations (his only published solo piano work) far more interesting to analyze than to listen to. Greenberg’s performance almost changes my mind. He makes more music than most, and perhaps it benefits from having Debussy as disc-mates. The Berg Piano Sonata has become a fairly standard repertoire item, and I have heard it in concert pretty much on an annual basis. Like other early Berg (his songs especially), melody and musical direction are more prominent than Webern’s austereness and dodecaphony, and Greenberg misses none of the work’s virtuosity.
The performance of the Schoenberg here is exceptional: communicative, great diction, dead-on pitch and ensemble. Soprano Tony Arnold, whose promotional picture in the booklet shows her as a unique personality, has the full measure of these very difficult works. She is a noted contemporary music interpreter and professor at Peabody Conservatory. Her website is www.screecher.com—unforgettable for sure, but not applicable to the quality of singing and music-making found here.
The inclusion of the Viennese composers is most likely the deciding factor for purchasing this release.
Debussy was certainly not tied to traditional harmony, but no matter how unusual his harmonies, there is always a sense of direction along with his unmatched melodic skill. The individual Debussy pieces here are well chosen. The Sarabande began life as the second of the 1894 Images (oubliées). Greenberg plays the slightly revised version from Pour le Piano. D’un cahier d’esquisses would be one of the longest Preludes if it were part of either book. Although a slow work, it is complex in terms of rhythm, voices, and range. The Etude in Sixths is another harmonically ambiguous piece (from 1917) and quite difficult.
The performance of the Preludes is very good—on a par with any in recent memory. Greenburg, a professor at Hunter College, has technique up to all the demands of these works. There are usually a dozen or more dynamic markings in each of these works, and I especially enjoy Greenberg’s control and attention to detail. He makes use of the most modern scholarly approach to La Cathedrale Engloutie by following Debussy’s performance and not the original edition with its omitted tempo changes.
If German songs from the early 20th Century and 12-tone piano pieces are not your cup of tea, then you should look elsewhere for the Debussy Preludes.
-James Harrington, 10.22.18, American Record Guide