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Edinburgh International Festival 2009 (6)  - Debussy, Berg,Mahler, Schoenberg  and J Strauss II: Hebrides Ensemble, Christopher Maltman (bar): Transcriptions from the Second Viennese School, Queen’s Hall, 20.8.2009 (SRT)


Debussy (arr. Schoenberg and Sachs): Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Berg (arr. Berg): Chamber Concerto: Adagio

Mahler (arr. Schoenberg): Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Schoenberg (arr. Webern): Chamber Symphony No. 1

Johann Strauss II (arr. Schoenberg): Roses from the South

This fastastically well-planned programme highlighted just how important the process of transcription was to Schoenberg and his followers. Calum MacDonald’s exceptionally clear programme note reminded us of Busoni’s idea that musical notation is the transcription of an abstract idea: the composer gives it one possible form but there are myriad potential realizations and these arrangers determined to unlock just a few. Most of these arrangements were made for performance in Schoenberg’s Verein für Musikalische Privattaufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances), a group of incredibly committed musicians who gave chamber performances of many larger scale works in private.

The Hebrides Ensemble are an ideal group to bring these to life for a modern audience, having shown themselves to be one of Scotland’s foremost chamber groups and their transparent playing of these pared-down arrangements was like a cool breeze blowing the familiarity off these works. Debussy’s seminal
Prelude sounded least different, as the all-important flute solo was unchanged; however the flautist here sounded more like a first-among-equals rather than the usual stand-out soloist. The textures of the work were much lighter and airier, evoking the summer’s afternoon in an entirely different – but just as satisfying – way to Debussy’s full-orchestral texture. The effect was quite hypnotic, especially towards the end. Berg’s Adagio was pared down to piano, violin and clarinet with the effect of rendering Berg’s visceral brand of hyper-romanticism even closer. Many scholars believe that the movement is a comment on the great trauma when Schoenberg’s wife left him for the artist Richard Gerstl, who then committed suicide when she returned to her husband. The visceral violin (Alexander Janiczek) and clarinet (Yann Ghiro) parts could make the blood run cold during certain ghostly episodes. Likewise, Webern’s arrangement of Schoenberg’s first Chamber Symphony made me regularly marvel at the extraordinary energy of Schoenberg’s instrumentation.

The highlight of the performance, however, came when Christopher Maltman joined the ensemble for Mahler’s
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Maltman’s vigorous, exciting baritone reminded us that these are songs for, in Mahler’s words, a lad. An extraordinary communicator, he perfectly captured the ebullience of the Spring morning in the second song and summoned extraordinary vocal power for the outbursts of the third. At times he was stretched by the quieter moments, particularly in the first song, but the quality of his vocal acting and was undeniable, giving a sarcastic snarl on the word “Schatz” (sweetheart) in the first song, as well as a longing farewell to the final line of the fourth. Though arranged for only eleven instruments, the sheer commitment of the playing meant I never missed the texture of a full orchestra, not even for the fantastically vehement opening of the third song.

The core ensemble played us out with Schoenberg’s arrangement of
Roses from the South, oozing charm and character, and even managing a few comic touches from the harmonium player. Who said that Serialists always had to be serious?

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 6th
September at venues across the city. For full details go to

Simon Thompson


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