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Towards Verklärte Nacht
Gabriella Sborgi (mezzo-soprano)
Sextet of the Orchestra da Camera di Mantova/Alessandro Maria Carnelli
rec. live, November, 2015, Teatro Bibiena, Mantua, Italy

This attractively packaged, bargain-priced recording derives from an original and absorbing concept arising from the research of musicologist, conductor and author Alessandro Maria Carnelli for his book on Schoenberg’s early masterwork for string sextet “Verklärte Nacht”. It traces the work’s historical context and the influences over its composer, taking the listener on a musical journey through a century and a half, from Bach to its composition.

The six part “Ricercar a 6”, the highly abstract and cerebral highpoint of “A Musical Offering”, forms an apt palate cleanser and hors d’oeuvre to the programme, establishing the formal link between Bach and Schoenberg. We then hear three Lieder by Brahms, Berg and Schoenberg himself, all arranged for string sextet and voice by Carnelli and linked by their common quality of being simultaneously both rhapsodic and disturbing. Mezzo-soprano Gabriella Sborgi sings powerfully with a slightly too pronounced vibrato, but she characterises dramatically and enunciates in good German. The kinship among these songs is made audibly very apparent and they form a persuasive segue into the harmonic world of von Zemlinsky, whose influence as a friend, teacher and mentor over Schoenberg was profound. The fragment “Schicksal” (“Fate” or “Destiny”) from his “Ein Stück aus dem Leben eines Menschen” (“A Piece from a Person’s Life”) is a world premiere recording, as are the arrangements of the three preceding songs, two of the three fragments from Schoenberg’s abandoned “Sextet” and the appendix track, a reconstruction of the seventy-nine bars from Schoenberg’s original manuscript forming the transitional section which links the first and second sections of “Verklärte Nacht”; these alone will be of sufficient allure to persuade some potential buyers to acquire this CD, although I suspect that the latter is of only passing interest to all but musicologist and professionals.

The sound world of “Schicksal” and “Maiblumen” bears a striking resemblance to Schoenberg’s more famous work; their lush sonorities, melodic similarities and, especially, the tremolando strings in the introductory section of “Maiblumen” all establish their influence beyond doubt. A further commonality is that both “Maiblumen” and “Verklärte Nacht” were composed to poems by Richard Dehmel. Finally, Schoenberg’s three fragments are very much in the same idiom; thus we see a striking literary and musical cross-fertilization amongst the works presented here.

Everything preceding the main item is skilfully and attractively performed; my main reservation concerns the quality of the performance of “Verklärte Nacht” itself. That it is musical and competent I do not question, but in comparison with the really gripping accounts from the augmented Takács - on the Phaia Music label in 1989 - or the Hollywood sextet, in their vintage recording of 1951, the difference between a virtuoso ensemble and merely skilful professional players such as those from the Orchestra da camera di Mantova, becomes all too apparent. Both of those older recordings bring so much more fire and passion to their playing, whereas the Mantuan players are rather stern, sombre and lacking in the exaltation this Expressionist music demands. The climax of the fourth section, “Sehr breit und langsam”, is short on bite and snap, while the final section, “Sehr ruhig”, in which the big phrases must soar and rubato must be applied to allow the music to yearn and breathe, remains earthbound. The differences extend to the ability of the respective lead violinists to create rapture: both Felix Slatkin and Petr Messiereur are distinctly sweeter of tone and more released than the merely able Filippo Lama. Finally, despite, or perhaps because of, being recorded live, the Takács – at least to my ears and on my equipment – enjoy better sound, while the spirit of the Hollywood transcends their hissy mono recording.

Ultimately, therefore, for all the intrinsic interest this recording affords, I cannot recommend the performance of the main work over established, classic recordings, but it remains a fascinating and educative enterprise.

Ralph Moore

The Ancestors
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
1. Ricercar a 6 (1747) [6:25]
From Brahms to Schoenberg and Beyond
Suite - Three Songs* (chosen and adapted by A.M. Carnelli)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
2. Liebestreu, Op. 3, No. 1 (1852-3) [2:22]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
3. Der Wanderer, Op. 6, No. 8 (1903/05)[4:53]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
4. Die Nachtigall (1907) [2:05]
Zemlinsky: Friend, Teacher, Colleague
Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942)
5. Ein Stück aus dem Leben eines Menschen – 1.Schicksal* [3:21]
6. Maiblumen blühten überall (1898) [9:46]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Towards Verklärte Nacht
7. Toter Winkel [2:04]
8. Ein Harfenklang* [0:21]
9. Fragment in G Minor* [0:39]
Verklärte Nacht Op. 4 (1899) [28:34]
10. Section 1 (bars 1-28): Sehr langsam [2:52]
11. Section 2 (bars 29-200): Etwas bewegter [9:25]
12. Section 3 (bars 201-228): Schwer betont [2:17]
13. Section 4 (bars 229-369): Sehr breit und langsam [9:43]
14. Section 5 (bars 370-418): Sehr ruhig [4:17]
Verklärte Nacht, First version (bars 22-100)*
14. Section 1 (end) - Section 2 (beginning) (bars 22-100) [4:04]
(reconstructed from the manuscript by A.M. Carnelli)
*World premiere recording



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