Anton Webern: Complete Works for String Quartet and String Trio (Artis Quartett Wein)

Until I downloaded this album from eMusic, the only Anton Webern piece I’d heard was the Six Bagatelles, which Kronos Quartet recorded on its second recital album Winter Was Hard.

I’ve always liked the Six Bagatelles for its brevity and sparseness. Even in the span of half a minute, which each bagatelle averages, Webern manages to coax extremes out of the music — long, quiet chromatic melodies burst into a clash of tremolo. Exploring the works of Webern became one of those personal checklist items that get bumped in favor of more immediate gratification. (Thank deity for eMusic.)

Webern’s entire catalog of work can fit on six CDs, as composer/conductor Pierre Boulez demonstrated in 2000. Webern’s life was cut short when he was accidentally shot by an American soldier in 1945 — the glow from his cigar spooked the soldier. The Complete Works for String Quartet and String Trio contains 7 works spread over 20 tracks and clocks in at 64 minutes.

The Artis Quartett Wein takes a chronological approach, starting with three pieces not published in Webern’s lifetime and ending with his 12-tone works.

The first three tracks — Langsamer Satz, a String Quartet from 1905 and a Rondo for String Quartet from 1906 — show Webern finding his voice. Langsamer Satz has its feet planted firmly in post-Romanticism, while the String Quartet and Rondo find him moving away from tonality.

The Five Movements for String Quartet, op. 5 establishes the style Webern would pursue for the remainder of his career — atonal and concise. Twelve-tone techniques would not show up for another decade or so, but even with the Six Bagatelles, Webern was treating each note in the chromatic scale with equal weight.

When Webern finally did adopt 12-tone writing, his works took on a pointillistic character — notes would appear in different octaves, blinking in and out like random stars over a hazy sky. With melody no longer an issue, Webern instead concentrated his efforts on texture and rhythm. You couldn’t hum a Webern piece, but you sure could feel it.

The wide open spaces in Webern’s music creates some wonderful tension. At a moment’s notice, a quiet passage could quickly turn into an ugly outburst, then just as quickly subside into the ether. That abruptness, that sense of the unexpected gives his music appeal.

Webern’s work has been called cool, not in the slang sense but in the emotional sense. I haven’t studied any of his scores, but Webern was known to use exacting methods in his compositions. His writing, in part, would influence future composers to systemize all parts of the composition, from pitch to rhythm. I’m not sure I totally buy into that notion of emotional coolness.

Conciseness doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of emotion. The fact a number of these string pieces can go from pianissimo to quadruple forte feels pretty expressionistic to me. Webern lived in uncertain times, and his personal life did not lack in drama. There’s an intensity to his music that couldn’t entirely fueled by technique alone.

His music was chilling enough to include in The Exorcist, and that has to say something.

Now that the string works are out of the way, I can focus on listening to the other five hours of Webern’s repertoire.