On its home page Project Odradek calls itself “a new way of doing classical.” It is both a record label and a concert association; and the “new way” is that of a non-profit, artist-controlled, democratic classical cooperative. If the display on that home page is ordered, then the very first release is a recording of the complete piano works of Arnold Schoenberg by the young Italian pianist Pina Napolitano. Intellectually, however, Napolitano is far more than a pianist. She holds undergraduate degrees in both Classics and Oriental European Culture and Languages, and her doctoral research is in Foreign Languages and Literature.
One should thus not be surprised to find that her introductory essay for the accompanying booklet is entitled “Philology and Romanticism.” She clearly approaches her work as a pianist with a semiotic mindset, but the essay demonstrates that she can explain herself without muddying the waters with excessive semiotic jargon. She simply wishes to make clear that Schoenberg’s notation can be problematic and that her job as a pianist is to determine the best way to interpret that notation in a manner that will do justice to the music Schoenberg was trying to document.
My own education comes from a time when these scores were analyzed to death. For several of the pieces on this recording, I used to have score pages that were so marked up in pencil that you could barely see the notation. The sad news was that almost all of those markings pertained to pitch classes, with almost no attention to dynamics, phrasing, or any other notation that might inform the pianist seeking an expressive performance. Our heads were so full of the interval vectors of Allen Forte and the permutation groups of Milton Babbitt that no room was left for Schoenberg’s music!
My days as a student have long past, and now I am less interested in any analysis I might undertake and more interested in what a performer or ensemble can do to make Schoenberg’s music sound like music. On the whole I am sufficiently satisfied with Napolitano’s approach that I am reluctant to cloud my mind (or the minds of my readers) with any details of how she came to her performances. One can listen to the very earliest pieces on the recording, the three pieces of Opus 11 and the six short pieces of Opus 19, and detect enough of a sense of thematic statement and development that the absence of any familiar harmonic progression is no great loss. The music really is there. One only needs to blow away the fog of misguided analysis.
Where things get a bit more tricky is in the Opus 25 suite, all of whose movement titles can be found in the suites of Johann Sebastian Bach. However, while one never misses the spirit of the dance forms associated with those titles in a Bach performance, it is hard to avoid being perplexed over Schoenberg’s use of them. Every now and then there is a rhythmic gesture that resonates with the Bach tradition; and there are even two da capo structures. Conceivably, each of the individual movements was intended as a parody, not in the literary sense but in the sense of the Renaissance technique of appropriating a source and then disguising that source in a thick texture of counterpoint. Alternatively, the suite may just be Schoenberg’s way of saying “Good riddance!” to that “alter Duft aus Marchenzeit” (ancient fragrance from fabled times) that concluded Pierrot Lunaire, which he composed ten years earlier. Finally, there is the possibility that the piano suite was a “warm-up” for the Opus 29 suite for septet, which he composed a few years later and is somewhat more accessible, not only for its more colorful instrumentation but also for a rhythmic rhetoric that is more inclined to prefer jazz to those seventeenth-century dances.
Napolitano’s approach to Opus 25 is unlikely to warrant or refute any of the claims behind any of the above hypotheses. All that really matters is that she approaches each of the suite’s movements with clarity, attentiveness to all of the notation (rather than just the pitch classes), and an overall sense of rhetoric that tries to covey each movement as a journey from a well-defined “here” to an equally well-defined “there.” She then leaves the rest to the listener’s capacity for sensemaking; and that little voice inside me that remembers all those narrow-minded exercises from my student days seems to be telling me that Schoenberg himself would probably have approved of her approach.