Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Lyric Suite [28:04]
Egon WELLESZ (1885-1974)
Sonette der Elisabeth Barrett Browning [19:34]
Eric ZEISL (1905-1959)
Komm, süẞer Tod, arranged for soprano and string quartet by J. Peter Koene
Renée Fleming (soprano), Emerson String Quartet (Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer (violins), Lawrence Dutton (viola), Paul Watkins (cello))
rec.: 9 June, 2, 6 December 2014, 11-12 February 2015, Queens College, Flushing, New Jersey (Berg); 28-29 August 2014, Drew University, Madison, New Jersey (Wellesz, Zeisl)
DECCA 478 8399 [56:28]
Berg’s Lyric Suite is one of the great string quartets of the twentieth century, worthy to rank with the string quartets of Bartók. He didn’t call it a quartet, probably because it is in six movements rather than the usual four. The structure is quite unconventional, alternating fast and slow movements, with the fast movements getting faster and the slow ones slower. The details of the structure are complex: some of the work uses Schoenberg’s serial technique while some does not. Berg wove into the score not only a direct quotation from Wagner but also cryptograms of various kinds, of which Berg was as fond as Schumann. Although these are of great interest to musicologists, for the listener they have the same significance as does scaffolding for a building: essential during construction but of little interest once the building is complete. The proof of this is that the work was welcomed as a masterpiece from its first performance, since it is as attractive as the Violin Concerto. Knowledge of its techniques came much later.
There is, however, a substantial exception to this generalization. In 1977, following the death of his widow, a score annotated by Berg came to light, which showed that Berg had not only been inspired by a passionate though unconsummated attachment to Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, the wife of a Prague industrialist, but had provided the text and indications of a vocal line for the last movement. The text is a despairing love poem by Baudelaire, in a German translation by Stefan George. The composer and musicologist George Perle, who was shown the annotated score, published a reconstruction of the vocal line and later an edition of the work including this secret programme. You can also buy a facsimile of Berg’s annotated score. The jury is still out on whether this vocal version was a private message by Berg to Hanna or his real intention for performance of the work.
The first recording of the quartet with the vocal finale was by the Kronos Quartet with Dawn Upshaw in 2003. Since then, performances have sometimes included this reconstructed vocal finale, either in substitution for the original purely instrumental one or alongside it so that the listener can choose which version to hear. It is this second alternative which the Emerson Quartet have chosen, with the original published version first, followed by the vocal finale. The performance of the work as a whole is immaculate: every nuance in the score is observed, and Berg is one of those composers who provides directions for nearly every note. It is also objective: this is how it goes, they say, and they are quite right. This would be an excellent version to learn the work from. When it comes to the vocal version of the finale, Renée Fleming has exactly the kind of luscious voice which Berg imagined and she sings with great feeling.
For a coupling they have chosen a work straightforwardly intended for voice and string quartet, not Schoenberg’s second quartet, as one might expect since it was written for this combination – in fact that requires a rather higher voice – but a setting by Egon Wellesz of some of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. In fact these were original poems, and the attribution to the Portuguese was simply to disguise their personal nature. The German translations were undertaken by Rilke, no less. Wellesz was an Austrian composer of Jewish background who had established a considerable reputation in Vienna before the arrival of the Nazis. He managed to escape to England where he became Reader in Byzantine music at Oxford and acquired a new reputation in this capacity, while the compositions he continued to produce were almost ignored. Only in recent years, with the rediscovery of the so-called Entartete Musik, has he started to receive attention. These songs are in a late Romantic tonal idiom, close to early Schoenberg, who soon departed from it, and to Zemlinsky, who did not. They are most attractive and make an inspired choice of coupling. For the record, Wellesz sets numbers 1, 2, 4, 29 and 7 of the original set, though these might have been all that Rilke translated.
Finally on the disc, not mentioned on the front cover, is a short setting of an anonymous poem on death by Eric Zeisl. He was another Jewish composer who fled the Nazis. It was arranged for soprano and string quartet by J. Peter Koene. This is a beautiful short work and I should like to hear more of Zeisl’s music (see reviews of two releases on CPO: Lieder 777170-2 and Piano concerto 777226-2.
The recordings sound well in a medium concert hall acoustic, despite being made over a period of some months and in two separate venues. The disc boasts a very handsome cover featuring a Klimt titled Water serpents though it looks like a seductive lady to me. The sleeve-note is informative on Berg and Wellesz, though silent on Zeisl, but it does includes the texts in three languages with the original French of Baudelaire’s poem, and English of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
There is no other disc with exactly this programme, but I should say something about the competition. My reference version of the Lyric Suite is the 1994 one by the Alban Berg Quartet. A direct comparison finds that the ABQ sings and dances more than the Emersons; they have this music in their blood, being Viennese themselves, as well as naming themselves after this composer. Their coupling is the obvious one of Berg’s early quartet, in effect his graduation exercise after his studies with Schoenberg and a fine work in itself. However, they do not include the vocal version of the finale of the Lyric Suite, though they were clearly aware of it. The Prazak quartet disc includes both of Berg’s quartets with both versions of the Lyric Suite finale and also the Webern quartet Op. 28. This has been well received, but Vanda Tabery changes the register of the vocal line from that reconstructed by Perle. A recent disc by the Quatuor Diotima contains the Lyric Suite with (only) the vocal finale, Schoenberg’s second quartet with a different singer and the Webern Op. 9 bagatelles including an extra unpublished one with a vocal line, thereby including all the Second Viennese School music for string quartet music with voice. There is one other recording of the Wellesz, on an all-Wellesz disc on Capriccio in what looks like an orchestral version. The inclusion of both versions of the finale may tip the balance away from the ABQ and towards the Emersons and the Wellesz and Zeisl are well worth hearing.