Feruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Berceuse, Op. 42 (arr. Schönberg) [8:28]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Sieben Frühe Lieder, Op. 4 (arr. de Leeuw) [13:44]
Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
Six Maeterlinck Songs, Op. 13 [17:23]
Anton WEBERN (1883-1945)
Passacaglia, Op. 1 (arr. de Leeuw) [15:04]
Katrien Baerts (soprano)
Het Collectief/Reinbert de Leeuw
rec. deSingel (Blue Hall), Antwerp

One of the most memorable Edinburgh International Festival concerts that I’ve attended in recent years was devoted to transcriptions of music made for the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen: the Society for Private Musical Performances. This remarkable institution operated in Vienna between 1918 and 1921, and existed to give creditable performances of serious music to the members of the Viennese public, often in their own homes. The composers of the Second Viennese School were all leading lights, and they had their own works performed there, as well as transcribing bigger ones for small forces, even Mahler symphonies, on occasion.

Het Collectief’s disc made me think of that concert. These aren’t all from the Verein — two are transcribed by the conductor of this disc — but they show that its work was valuable in and of itself, not just for listeners who didn’t have access to larger scale forces. The opening Berceuse is remarkably seductive, with powerful solo string tone over undulating piano and bass accompaniment, and the clarinet later comes in with tone so vital as to sound aching. Schönberg was mightily impressed by Busoni's ability to be both — or should that be neither? — tonal and atonal at the same time, and that comes through in the enormously sensitive way he has scored this piece. It contains a mysterious, spectral universe of suggestion, and I loved it.

Berg's Frühe Lieder sound magnificent in this setting, too. Mysterious and penetrating is the accompaniment, and the voice of Katrien Baerts is incisive and cutting: it is crisp and clear without being necessarily beautiful, and that adds to the atmosphere. The ear picks up so much detail, such as the shuddering violins in Schilflied, and the Nightingale sounds much more lyrical than you might have heard elsewhere. Traumgekrönt, conversely, sounds even more strange. The opening swell of Sommertage, and much of the accompaniment, sounds a bit like a cabaret song, and perhaps that was their intention.

I came to the Maeterlinck lieder shortly after hearing Jurowski's LPO CD of the same repertoire. It makes for a very interesting comparison. There is some loss here of the sheer array of colour that a full orchestra can provide, but a gain in immediacy of impact, as well as opening up the whole new world of the transcription itself. De Leeuw himself describes it as the difference between voluptuousness and delicacy, and he is quite right. The opening of the Blindfolded Maidens is particularly alluring, a gorgeous part for the clarinet, sparkling against the rest of the texture. Baerts' voice is actually preferable to Petra Lang's. She sounds more committed, more involved — she has nowhere to hide — but also, importantly, she isn't plagued by the beat that worried me so much about Lang. She is at her most winning in Lied der Jungfrau, which has innocence but also a hint that all is not quite as it seems.

Webern’s Passacaglia starts with such delicacy but gathers pace remarkably quickly and moves from exquisitely worked miniaturism to stormy passion via all stops in between. This transcription freshly reveals Webern's skill for counterpoint and his respect for past masters like Bach. Highlights include the exceptionally precise pizzicato variation, immediately succeeded by eerily trembling strings, then the tremendous powerful climax at the 8-minute mark.

The recording captures the small group of instruments very successfully and allows the clarity of the textures to shine through. A short disc, but then it is all about the power of compression, after all. Full texts and translations are provided, as well as an extensive and interesting interview with Reinbert de Leeuw.

Simon Thompson

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