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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (arr. Schoenberg) [17:18]
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Berceuse élégiaque
(arr. Erwin Stein) [7:06]
Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Sechs Gesänge (arr. Christopher Austin) [19:35]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Siegfried Idyll
Katie Bray (mezzo), Gareth Brynmor John (baritone)
Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble/Trevor Pinnock
rec. 2014, St George’s Bristol
LINN SACD CKD481 [61:00]

In the years after the First World War Schoenberg and his friends set up a Society for Private Musical Performances. Contemporary works were carefully prepared and performed to audiences who were not allowed to applaud or the reverse, and critics were forbidden. A wide variety of works was given, including many whose idiom was very far from that of Schoenberg and his circle: works by Debussy, Bartók, Stravinsky and Milhaud for example. They could not afford large orchestras so various members made chamber arrangements of large works. This was when recording was in its infancy. And they weren’t always serious: all the members of the Second Viennese School made versions of Strauss waltzes for these concerts.

The Royal Academy of Music has had the idea of recreating this tradition through recordings, performing both some of the works in the versions which survive from that time and also commissioning new ones. This disc is the third in their series. Zemlinsky was Schoenberg’s teacher and later brother-in-law and Busoni was Schoenberg’s predecessor as a professor in Berlin. The two of them displayed a wary respect for each other.

Schoenberg himself made the version of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen we hear, and Mark Seow’s sleeve-note informs us that Schoenberg had been rather ambivalent about Mahler, though he honoured him and Mahler reciprocated by giving him patronage. This version works very well, as one might expect from such a master orchestral writer, and the singer benefits from not having large orchestral forces to contend with. Gareth Brynmor John sings fluently with a good lyrical line and clear German. We should not complain if he does not yet dig into the words as deeply as, say, Christian Gerhaher in a fine recent issue of the normal orchestral version; in its own terms this is a good performance.

Busoni developed an idiom which, one you have caught it, is unmistakable: partly through wavering between major and minor and partly through strange harmonic and contrapuntal combinations he evokes an atmosphere which is eerie and haunting, impossible to forget and addictive once you are used to it. (Declaration: I am an addict.) He originally wrote his Berceuse élégiaque as a piano piece in memory of his mother who had recently died. He later orchestrated it, and we have here a chamber version which is, as it were, half way between the composer’s own two versions, by Erwin Stein, a Schoenberg pupil. He captures much of the mystery and magic of the original but a little is lacking because he misses some of the instruments Busoni asked for in his by no means large ensemble, and which you can hear in Järvi’s version.

Zemlinsky’s songs to words by Maeterlinck have become tolerably well known in recent years. Four of them are written in the Jugendstil idiom which is also that of Schoenberg’s early tonal works, both rich and delicate – I want to say feathery. They are played here in a new orchestration by Christopher Austin, who contributes an interesting account of it in the sleeve-note. He included two instruments which Zemlinsky had not: an accordion and a vibraphone, the latter to give ‘a tiny glimpse of the world of Alban Berg’s Lulu’. This is intriguing, but I have to point out that Zemlinsky is not Berg – though they were on friendly terms – that when Zemlinsky wrote these songs Lulu was some twenty years in the future, and that if some of the songs suggest a later idiom it is, surprisingly, not that of Berg but of Kurt Weill. The last two of the songs – in the numbered order, which is not the order of composition – seem to me to anticipate in a much gentler idiom, respectively, the last and first of the numbers in Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins.

Be that as it may, Katie Bray sings them well, with a lovely tone and again good German. However, she is occasionally unsteady and she has a tendency to linger in the lusher passages, which her conductor, Trevor Pinnock indulges rather than reins in. He is best known as a baroque specialist and is here very far from his comfort zone. I felt that Anne Sofie von Otter had a tighter grip on them, with John Eliot Gardiner conducting – another baroque specialist away from his usual turf – but even better was Violeta Urmana with James Conlon, a Zemlinsky specialist.

We end with the Siegfried Idyll, and of course all these composers revered Wagner. This could be counted as an arrangement as well, though it is really a reversion to Wagner’s original, which was for solo rather than orchestral strings. There are more recordings of the larger version than you can shake a stick at; of that with solo strings there is a classic one by Solti with soloists of the Vienna Philharmonic, made in between recording sessions for Die Walküre. The excellent Royal Academy Soloists do not quite equal that but they give a good and sensitive performance which rounds off an enterprising disc. I heard it in two-channel stereo; the sound has the atmosphere of a small concert hall, which is right. The sleeve-note is in English only but includes original texts and translations of the vocal works.

Stephen Barber


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