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Verklärte Nacht
Franz LEHÁR (1870-1948)
Fieber, Tone Poem for Tenor and Large Orchestra [12:29]
Oskar FRIED (1871-1941)
Verklärte Nacht, Op. 9 [8:22]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 [28:50]
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Abschiedslieder, Op. 14 (Version for Voice & Orchestra) [13:36]
Stuart Skelton (tenor), Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
Rec. 14-15 March 2020, Phoenix Concert Hall, Fairfield Halls, Croydon, UK
Reviewed in surround sound

Arnold Schönberg (to restore the original German spelling) composed his String Sextet Verklärte Nacht - ‘Transfigured Night’ - in 1899, in his mid-twenties. It was completed in three weeks in an extraordinary burst of inspiration, after encountering the poem by Richard Dehmel on which it is based. Then in 1917, the composer – aware perhaps that the work stretched to breaking point the chamber medium for which it was written – re-scored it for string orchestra, and, while I understand the attractions of the chamber version, I have always felt that it is this later arrangement that reveals the full greatness of the work.

I use the word ‘arrangement’; but what Schönberg did was far more than that. It is a re-imagining and a re-creation. Looking at the score, one sees that he has taken such care in every passage to ensure that a distinctive sonority is achieved. He sets some of the most exquisite moments for solo strings, and frequently asks for different numbers of desks to be used. Thus the sound is never produced by one stable body, but instead has a plasticity of unique beauty.

So we have here one of the great masterpieces of early 20th century music. Yes, its style is heavy with late Romantic sentiment; but Schönberg without a doubt sees past that into a post-Freudian world where emotions, and the causes that lie beneath them, are laid bare in an almost cruel way.

Dehmel’s poem tells of two figures, a man and a woman, walking through a moonlit forest. It becomes clear that the woman is desperately distressed; tortured with guilt and remorse, she eventually confesses to her companion that, despite her love for him, she is carrying a child that is not his, conceived before they met. But he comforts her, telling her that their love will make the child their own; and they begin to find their way towards profound, shared joy. Schönberg uncovers the story with the greatest subtlety and sensitivity, and it is not unusual, in a good performance, to find oneself moved to tears by the incredible beauty of this music.

However, despite that beauty, Verklärte Nacht presents huge challenges to the players and the conductor. These are partly technical issues; the string writing is extremely demanding, stemming from the piece’s origins as a chamber work for solo strings. But even more difficult is the pacing of the work. The tempi are in a constant state of flux, especially in the first part, where the agonised emotions of the woman are depicted. Here, Schönberg is at his most progressive, adumbrating Expressionist works such as Pierrot Lunaire and Erwartung. And it is in this section that the conductor has to have an absolutely clear idea of the various tempi.

Edward Gardner is a conductor I admire greatly, and it’s clear from the start how deeply in sympathy with this work he is. He secures the highest class of playing from the BBC SO, and steers them through the emotional maelstrom of this music quite superbly. It’s true that in the opening section I was taken aback at one point in particular. Metronome marks notoriously don’t tell us everything, far from it. But Schönberg was very precise in this regard, and really meant his markings. So after the very slow, very quiet opening, the music begins to flow a little more, and the score has poco più mosso (‘a little quicker’, or, more accurately, ‘with a little more movement’), and a metronome mark of crotchet = 72. At this point, Gardner marches forward, at a tempo closer to crotchet = 95. Suddenly, we’re on a bracing country walk, and the tense, haunted atmosphere is momentarily lost.

I think I understand what Gardner is aiming for at that point; it’s just that I don’t feel it is consistent with what Schönberg wanted, as indicated by his markings. But I shall listen again, because in the great scheme of things it is a small blemish – if that is what it is – and is my only real reservation about this truly wonderful reading of the work.

The second half achieves ineffable tenderness, and an ecstatic joy at its climaxes too. You can sense how carefully Gardner and his players have thought about, for example, the precise voicing of that crucial D major chord which begins the second part, and announces the male character’s affirmation of his love and support. There are no rough edges of ensemble or tuning in this performance, yet it possesses the same kind of visceral intensity we find in the early Barenboim recording with the ECO, now well re-mastered for EMI Classics. However, the 1960s sound bears no comparison with this Chandos recording’s super-audio excellence, where every detail of this teeming score makes its impact.

Overall then, this has to be one of the finest performances on disc, and one of the best recorded. It may not be perfect – but then does a ‘perfect’ version of this work even exist? I'll be a coward and pass on that one!

What about the other items on the disc? They are all rarities, and on track 1 we find a ‘tone poem’ by Franz Lehár – of all people, you may say! And I confess that these are almost certainly the only notes of his music I have ever heard other than The Merry Widow, Land of Smiles and the Gold and Silver Waltz. But as you can see from his dates, Lehár was a close contemporary of Schönberg’s, so that his inclusion here is entirely justified, although his musical language is far less advanced.

It’s interesting that The Merry Widow was first performed in 1905 – the same year that Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht was published. Equally striking is the fact that Fieber (‘Fever’), an unusual tone poem with solo voice, was composed ten years later than the Widow, and was originally the final number of a song-cycle Aus eiserne Zeit, literally ‘From an Iron Time’. At the time he wrote Fieber, Lehár’s brother, an army officer, was in hospital being treated for war wounds (from which he recovered). Fieber’s text is closely related, telling of a delirious soldier, again in a hospital ward, who dies at the end of the work. Indeed, the most striking moment is perhaps the conclusion where the words are suddenly spoken – “Medical officer, sir, the cadet in bed eight is dead”.

Both the Austrian Radetzky March and the Hungarian Rákóczi March put in appearances representing the dying man’s raving, and the piece does make a certain quasi-theatrical impact. But I felt sympathy for Stuart Skelton, the distinguished Wagnerian tenor, who does his best with the ungrateful vocal writing.

At least Lehár brings a certain flourish to his work; Oskar Fried’s setting for soprano, tenor and orchestra of Verklärte Nacht, the Dehmel poem that was the inspiration for Schönberg’s masterpiece, is much harder to like. The voices of Christine Rice and Stuart Skelton seem ill-matched; her soprano with its fulsome vibrato, his tenor sounding frankly underpowered. The vocal writing is again unkind, and the piece rises, in its mere eight minutes of duration, to a disproportionately massive Wagnerian climax. Fried gives us bombast, where Schönberg found the emotional and psychological core of the poem.

The final item, Erich Korngold’s Lieder des Abschieds – ‘Songs of Farewell’ – is on an altogether higher level than those of Lehár or Fried. The poetry he sets here, however, is drippily mediocre, full of self-pitying stuff – ‘My dearest, when I am dead, do not lament’, or ‘Like withered leaves those sunny hours are blown away’ and so forth. The second of them, though, Dies eine kann mein Sehnen nimmer fassen, ‘This my longing will never grasp’, is the shortest and the most interesting, and as you might expect, Korngold’s scoring throughout is skilful and sensitive. But Skelton doesn’t really know what to do with them, and seems to find it well-nigh impossible to mould a sustained melodic line. Perhaps not a good choice for these songs.

So - one superlative performance of a great masterpiece, plus three comparative rarities of, let’s say, mixed quality. However you look at it, this is imaginative programming from Chandos.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Roy Westbrook

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