It's tempting to see works for solo piano as the key to a composer's psyche. They can be — as with Beethoven, as with Chopin — the most intimate of statements, the artist alone solving problems at the desk of musical expression. But for a composer intent on challenging form such as Arnold Schönberg, the piano sonata may read as being more limiting than it is liberating. Or it may simply be the opportunity to hear him speaking from his heart rather than his head. Either way, however, the six pieces collected on Works for Piano may be heard as among his least radical works — an act of categorization that would no doubt please many listeners of late classical music while disappointing those who hear in his voice the granddaddy of 20th Century avant garde music.
As the creator of 12-tone music and a teacher to John Cage (even if neither embraced the relationship), it's easy to forget that Schönberg was a product of his time, championed in his early years by both Mahler and Strauss. While he may be seen as scoring the dawn of the new century, he was still a late romanticist, and on Works for Piano we hear him to some degree at his pastime of emulating Brahms — hardly a fruitless pursuit but very different than the vibrantly new arrangements of sound heard in his Serenade or Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten.
The six pieces, representing his entire output for solo piano, were written between 1893 and 1932, that is from early in his career (he was just 20 when he composed the three-movement, eight-minute Drei Klavierstücke) until a couple of years before leaving Germany in 1933. As perhaps befitted his new American home, his work grew expansive both in scale and instrumentation. In the final 20 years of his life he didn't publish another work for solo piano.
Although written over a period of more than 35 years, there's something that seems youthful about the piano works, a sweet naivety that replaces the beautiful earnestness that marks his grander works. Perhaps it is due to the fact that (as Reinhard Kager points out in the notes to the original 1999 release) Schönberg seemed to turn to the piano at pivotal times in his career. We can, perhaps, hear the composer posing problems to himself which would later be resolved in chamber works. Thus we hear in Drei Klavierstück, Op. 11 from 1909 an early experiment in harmonic structures without a fixed tonic or Fünf Klaverierstück Op. 23 from 1923 as solidifying his tone-row serialism.
The pieces here are all miniatures (one movement of Op. 11 lasts a whopping seven minutes) although they're often fuller than his chamber works. Pi-Hsien Chen's playing — she performs the entire set — is delicate throughout, giving the pieces a deserved lyrical touch rather than the stark coldness to which the composer is sometimes subjected. As a result, we can hear Schönberg not as the calculating master of the Second Viennese School but as a creator with warmth and feeling, even while being dedicated to breaking free from the past.
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