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By Joel Kasow

LYON, FRANCE, 25 March 1998 - More than most orchestras, the Orchestre National de Lyon embarks on projects that are not only interesting on paper but also work out in practice. After the complete works of Edgard Varèse two years ago - less than two hours of music, in fact - came the idea of presenting the complete works of Anton Webern - just under four hours for the official canon - during a three-week period.

This is still a daunting proposition, Webern being the least-loved and appreciated of the 20th-century Viennese trinity: Arnold Schoenberg, the seminal figure who taught both Webern and Alban Berg, is perhaps the best-known, while Berg is perhaps the most-appreciated by the public at large, with Webern ranking highest only among the cognoscenti for carrying Schoenberg's dicta to their logical conclusion, the prime example being the Three Pieces for Cello and Piano, lasting not even three minutes.

Webern's official catalogue contains 31 works, but there is a considerable body of unpublished material, divided between youthful, post-Strauss or Scriabin-derived pieces and later works that were either insufficiently worked out in the composer's mind and thus remaining in manuscript or that were simply found to be not up to the composer's expectations. While the "bigger" works were parceled out over several orchestral concerts, a Sunday marathon (8 March) of four concerts focused on Webern's chamber and vocal output, including a number of selections from the "workshop".

A recital the preceding Friday afternoon was composed exclusively of unpublished material, in which soprano Sibylle Ehlert had more difficulty maintaining a semblance of poise in the face of a class of nine or ten-year olds totally unprepared for a difficult idiom than parading around the stage without a stitch of clothing in Ligeti's (or should I say Sellars') Grand Macabre a few weeks earlier.

The opening concert featured Pierre Boulez conducting the BBC Singers and the Ensemble Intercontemporain. The vocal presence enabled us to hear such infrequently encountered pieces as Stravinsky's Four Russian Peasant Songs and Bartok's Three Village Scenes as well as Boulez' Cummings ist der Dichter. Unfortunately, we also had to sit through Harrison Birtwistle's interminable .agm., which seemed bloated next to the lapidarian concision of Webern's Concerto for nine instruments, Op. 24, or the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10. A curious program the next evening featured the two Cantatas alongside an exuberant reading of Rossini's Stabat Mater, all under the baton of Gianluigi Gelmetti.

The major event was certainly the "journée Webern" featuring the Solistes de l'Orchestre National de Lyon, conductor Daniel Kawka (a Depardieu lookalike), the Debussy Quartet, pianists Hervé Billaut and Iain Burnside and sopranos Ingrid Attrot and Sibylle Ehlert, neither of whom was entirely at ease in Webern's uncomfortable vocal lines that require stratospheric ease and subterranean comfort. Two early piano pieces from 1906 or a Piano Quintet from 1907 certainly force us to place the composer in a different light, someone who did not spring fully formed in the mold in which he has always been cast.

The Webern project was part of the Musique en Scène festival organized by a non-Parisian body, GRAME, Centre National de Création Musicale, other sponsors including the Musée d'art contemporain where an exhibition was devoted to "oeuvres sonores". At the same time, the Opéra National de Lyon gave the world premiere of Peter Eötvös's Three Sisters, one of the few modern operas this reviewer has heard that he would willingly sit through a second time.

The Orchestre National de Lyon has no intention of stopping at this point, other composers under consideration for similar treatment are Karol Szymanowski and Frank Martin, both of whom would benefit considerably from such a major retrospective.

Related Internet sites:

Books on Anton Webern and his music:

List of complete musical works:

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