Twelve-Tone Vinyl at Palais Fanto

A Dj in the concert hall: a Schoenberg evening of legendary performances on rediscovered vinyl

An international crowd had gathered at the Palais Fanto for the 15th anniversary of the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna, the murmuring mingling with the clinking of glasses echoing against the marble of the 1917 neo-classic palace on Schwarzenbergplatz.

Several of Schoenberg’s descendants had made the trip from California to hear the composer’s legendary recordings on vinyl from the 1940s to 1980s – some never released on CD.

New York DJ Marina Rosenfeld spun Schoenberg vinyls at Palais Fanto | Photo: Schönberg Center

New York DJ Marina Rosenfeld spun Schoenberg vinyls at Palais Fanto | Photo: Schönberg Center

All in all, it turned out to be a spell-binding flight across a musical universe, from the Tonal Galaxy, with its familiar melodies and harmonies, to the distant Twelve-Tone Constellation via the Chromatic Way.

The music included the Chamber Symphony Op. 9, a passionate piece oscillating wildly between searing violins and cool, hushed tones – a “very special recording” from 1957, under the baton of the great Hungarian conductor Jascha Horenstein. With this work for fifteen solo instruments, premièred in 1907, Schoenberg believed he had found his “own personal style of composing”.

 

Second Viennese school

The Palais Fanto was the last prominent building of the Habsburg monarchy, and thus a perfect, but also ironic home for the archives of the enfant terrible of musical Vienna. Having stretched late-Romantic tonality to its limits, Schoenberg went on to develop the twelve-tone serial technique that, even a century later, still baffles most listeners.

Although not everybody. “I hear it as a musician and composer, so it’s not so hard to listen to,” said a French jazz musician sitting nearby. “I find it both very free and very tightly-written.”

 

Advanced high-fidelity

On show was a monumental Artkustik record-player, a beast of some 115 kilos. Beside it sat Othmar Spitaler, a gentleman in a brown checked jacket, who designs and constructs top-notch hi-fi equipment near Krems. “The revolving part alone weighs 52 kilos!” he told me later – a weight needed to ensure stability and constant playing speed. The equipment had been brought for the occasion to allow the best possible listening experience.

His assistant for the evening was Pawel Książek, a passionate music collector and Polish painter, who had brought some highly-prized LPs. Like a youthful Andy Warhol in black jeans, shirt and blazer, he pulled out a boxed set with incandescent red artwork: The Complete Works for Chamber Ensemble (London Sinfonietta). The 40-year-old box was still in its original cellophane wrapping and had never been played – “kept for a special occasion,” Książek chuckled, and tore the wrapping apart with much fanfare and a visible frisson quivering in his eyes. Then came a Lied – a soaring soprano melody, clearer than crystal, heart-stopping.

The glossy red box was followed by an older, more demure ten-inch 1950 recording of the New York Philharmonic, with Martha Lipton floating over the listeners in the Song of the Wood Dove. The closing, aching phrases set the air shivering. How could it be that my CD version had so little in common with this recording in mere mono? So, I mused, this is what they mean by a “legendary performance”…

 

Schoenberg remixed

A second interval allowed more mingling and refreshments. Herr Spitaler, the one-time DJ, was clearly enjoying himself; “It’s just like listening to your own records at home!” he enthused.

An earth-quaking bass drone and eerie whining now emanated from the auditorium – the New York DJ, Marina Rosenfeld. Clad in a sassy striped dress and creamy boots, she sat like a pianist before her two turntables and mixer. Her hands moved like a pianist’s too, mixing the old master’s works, spinning them backwards, distorting them through spacey sound effects. This was more than the French composer could bear: “This is no way to treat vinyl records,” he grumbled.

 

Space night

The evening ended with several films from the European Space Policy Institute, housed one floor above the Center, screened with Schoenberg’s music, both blending mind and beauty, science and aesthetics, said ESPI director, Peter Hulsroj.

Thus the evening ended in a slow fireworks of satellite photos of the Earth in glorious high resolution and vivid digital colour – as abstract and shimmering as Schoenberg’s most arid works, a marriage of old-school audio and space-age technology quite literally “made in heaven”.

 

The Schönberg Vinyl Night took place on 12 March at the Arnold Schönberg Center, Palais Fanto, 3., Schwarzenbergplatz 6, Zaunergasse 1-3, www.schoenberg.at

 

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