Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Quartet op.51 no.1 in C minor (1873)
Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht op.4 (1899 arr.1917 rev.1943) [29:32]
Amsterdam Sinfonietta
rec. 3-4 June 2007 (Brahms) and 27-28 October 2010 (Schönberg), Philharmonie Haarlem, The Netherlands
This excellent coupling may at first seem one more of convenience than intention, but it was Schoenberg himself who pointed towards Brahms’ String Quartet op.51 no.1 in C minor as being related to Verklärte Nacht in its compositional techniques of ‘developing variation’ and forward looking harmonic style. Familiarity with Verklärte Nacht and the comparable sonorities of these string orchestra versions make this relationship even more apparent. Even though Schoenberg was born only a couple of years after Brahms died, this CD is still very much an education in the short steps needed to find common ground between seemingly disparate generations.
This is a straight transcription of Brahms’s quartet music, with sensitive addition of the double bass part by the ever entrepreneurial arranger and bassist Marijn van Prooijen. This string quartet is of course encountered more often in its original form on recordings, and an acceptance of the differences in hearing the work through a larger ensemble will be a factor for some listeners. I prefer to see this almost as an entirely different work rather than an alternative version, as the communicative nature of larger string groups is so widely at variance to that of the soloists in a quartet. I’m a huge fan of Brahms, but in many ways I prefer the lower-impact of intensity from the string orchestra in this context, and will take the light touch of collective sections rather than the intense scrubbing of a solo part taken too seriously. This is by no means a sit-back and enjoy read-through, but the lines of the music come across more objectively and homogeneously, and I find myself appreciating Brahms the composer more than the individual qualities of one or other quartet or performer. The warmth of the second movement Romanze is a delight for instance, and the following Allegretto takes on a lightness of tread which is expressive of relatively untroubled and almost pastoral circumstances. The drama of the final Allegro takes on a quasi-symphonic scale, and, while admitting this version doesn’t substitute for the best of the string quartet recordings available I would consider it a valid alternative, and have a strong feeling it will be played more often.
Any new recording of the string orchestra version of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht has to go up against the almost cataclysmically passionate recording made in the 1970s by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, now available on Deutsche Grammophon’s ‘Originals’ re-release edition 457 721-2. This is such a dramatic recording that it might even be considered ‘over the top’ these days, and the massed strings of the Berlin Philharmonic are certainly intended to pack a symphonic punch, with a good deal less concession made for the contrasting chamber-musical elements of solo intimacy in the score. This is where the Amsterdam Sinfonietta has an advantage in the opening minutes, with those string-quartet moments having genuine emotional impact, rather than being sections of almost embarrassing thinness, the soloists recessed and swept aside by the full orchestra as soon as possible. These are comparative values of course, but with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta the texture and qualities of solo strings being reinforced is apparent in the transparency of the recording where the glossy sweep of von Karajan’s sonic picture gives the opposite effect. The added advantage of greater clarity is in the tighter nature of the bass lines. Where the Berlin recording is sometimes rather boomy and indistinct the greater clarity of the Amsterdam version wins out where the bass line is swifter moving; its relevance to restlessly shifting harmonies more connected. Somewhere in between, a comparison with the recording by Nimbus with William Boughton and the English String Orchestra on NI 5151 shows a more up-front balance for the solo strings, but the vastness of the Birmingham University Great Hall further conveys an almost infinite stadium-full of players. This is a recording full of atmosphere and one which I still also very much enjoy for a fine Richard Strauss Metamorphosen, but the overall level of intensity in the solo passages has too many moments of perceived uncertainty, and the strange general effect of the recording is one which removes it as a first choice.

The Amsterdam Sinfonietta certainly doesn’t lack weight where Schoenberg demands it, and there is all of the emotional turmoil and dramatic turbulence one could ask for in this performance. ‘Transfigured Night’ takes its inspiration from Richard Dehmel’s eponymous and for its time controversially sensual poem. Schoenberg’s intention was to convey ‘nature and human feelings’ rather than be a programmatic drama, though the structure of the piece does closely follow that of the poem. The sense of narrative in this recording is one of its strong features, and the orchestra paces and colours the dramatic sequence very effectively: the chill of the opening moonlit grove transformed into the welcome embrace and ‘hohe, helle Nacht’ of the conclusion. There are some almost unavoidable on-the-edge moments at maximum tumult with the journey in between these magic moments, and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta doesn’t wear its heart quite as closely to its sleeve as Karajan or some of the best sextet recordings, but the refinement in the playing is another quality which can be relished in this performance. This is the kind of richly expressive performance which has long-term staying power rather than gut-wrenching impact.
This is a nicely presented, beautifully produced and easily recommendable recording which, as might be expected, flourishes best in its SACD mode. The orchestra is not recorded too closely, and the surround recording gives an accurate ambient feel, taking you into the generously expansive and historic space of the Philharmonie in Haarlem. The definition and dynamics are perfectly acceptable in stereo, but this disc’s full glory really is best appreciated as it opens out through a decent SA system.
Dominy Clements
Very fine indeed.