Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874–1951)
"Of Dragonflies and Moonbeams"
Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (“The Book of the Hanging Gardens”) (1908-9) Op. 15 [25:34]
Pierrot Lunaire (1912) Op. 12 [35:03]
Alison Wells (mezzo)
Firebird (John Barrow (flute); Dov Goldberg (clarinet); Ian Buckle (piano); Mieko Kanno (violin); Adrian Bradbury (cello))
rec. West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge 16-17 July 2007

There is a big surprise for the listener on this disc, but it is not the one which the back of the cover may lead you to expect. The front cover gives little away, stating merely “Of Dragonflies and Moonbeams” and the names of the artists. It gives the titles of the works in English, the authors of the poems and the words “English translation copyright 2007 Susanne Frankel”. However this does not mean that they are sung in English, simply that English translations (but no German originals) are included in the booklet. This was a disappointment to me, as there is much to be gained from the more direct link between words and music that comes from hearing vocal works in translation. The new translations are in fact not very different to those easily available before, and in themselves are unlikely to influence whether you buy the disc.

The actual surprise, one which however may well make you very keen to buy, is revealed inside the booklet. It is that “Das Buch der hängenden Gärten” is sung in an arrangement by Howard Burrell for the same ensemble that Schoenberg used in “Pierrot Lunaire”. This proves to be a very welcome surprise, as what can sound somewhat austere and hard to follow in the original version comes much more clearly to life when given additional colour and when individual lines can be discerned. I have to admit that whilst I find Pierrot both fascinating and lovable I still find that I admire rather than enjoy the earlier cycle. Even if you know it well this version makes much clear that all too often is muddy or even ugly in unsympathetic performances.

Alison Wells has a wide experience in the performance of new music, as well as being a respected teacher. However I must admit to finding her actual vocal tone somewhat worn and unattractive and hard to listen to at length. Her vibrato makes it hard to discern the precise shape of the vocal line in Op 15, and her version of the sprechstimme of Pierrot is unconvincing. There is no doubt as to her total involvement in both works, but I did feel the lack of sheer beauty of tone by the end of works with only limited respite for the singer or listener. Others may respond differently, and I do have great admiration for the detailed way in which both performances have clearly been prepared.

Firebird is an ensemble resident at the University of Huddersfield and mainly involved in the performance of contemporary music. They play with impressive accuracy although much more can be made of the very dramatic second part of Pierrot. Indeed the contrasted character of the three parts does not register as clearly as surely it should. Nonetheless they are clearly wholly conversant with the style of the music, and give a very convincing account of the rearranged Op. 15. It is indeed for that work that the disc is worth having, even if there are better sung versions available in the original piano version.

John Sheppard

Total involvement, but lack of sheer beauty of vocal tone can be a problem… see Full Review