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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

Here is an intriguing piece of programme-building around a key work of fin-de-sičcle Vienna. Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, in its full string orchestra version, is the departure point and the only well-known work here. It is also the only non-vocal one. Oskar Fried’s 1901 Verklärte Nacht is a setting for mezzo, tenor, and orchestra of the same Richard Dehmel poem that had inspired Schoenberg’s 1899 instrumental piece. The vocal disposition reflects the structure of Dehmel’s poem, which has five sections. Thus the scene setting opening, describing two lovers walking at night, is for both singers. Then the woman ‘speaks’, and the mezzo sings “I am with child, and not by you”. The middle section is another short narration for duet, then the man ‘speaks’ and the tenor sings of how the shimmering night “will transfigure the stranger’s child, you will bear it for me”. The final section describes them walking on through the night.

Fried provides music for this text of a quality that makes one wish he had not abandoned composing for conducting (even though this website must honour the man who conducted the first recording of a Mahler symphony). The five part structure is mirrored in the music, not just by the allocation of voices to sections, but also in the harmonic progress, as the gloom of the opening minor mode is ‘transfigured’ into a glowing major by the man’s transformative response. Stuart Skelton and Christine Rice sing their respective aria-like solos very well, and blend effectively in the narrative duet passages. The BBC Symphony Orchestra have plenty to contribute to the scene also, and while Gardner’s conducting acknowledges the sometimes hothouse post-Wagnerian manner, he keeps this short scene in emotional proportion.

Lehár ‘s Fieber (“Fever”) was initially part of a song cycle Aus eiserner Zeit (“From the Age of Iron”) of 1915 – this orchestral setting came a year later. It seems Lehár’s soldier brother was recovering from war wounds and in some danger, and Lehár commissioned the text, a monologue by a dying soldier in hospital. Lehár called Fieber a Tone Poem for Tenor and Large Orchestra, and there are plenty of motivic signposts for the orchestra, including a waltz, bugle calls and marches including references to both the Radetzky and the Rakoczy marches. This vocal monodrama depicts a final delirium, each stage vividly evoked by these performers, in which the soldier recalls his girlfriend, his military life, imagines his mother is with him, until the final bleak line - spoken not sung - “the cadet in bed eight is dead”. Of course when we hear Stuart Skelton sing this piece so intensely, we recall the delirium of one of his major roles, that of Wagner’s Tristan. Fieber has something of that intensity at times, a world away from the composer’s The Merry Widow. Perhaps the difficulty of programming this splendid twelve minute piece, or the misleading expectations aroused by the composer’s name, keep it off concert programmes. That is regrettable, but it makes this excellent recording all the more valuable.

Korngold’s Abschiedslieder (Songs of Farewell) comes from 1920-21, before he had fled Vienna for Hollywood, and around the time of his opera Die tote Stadt. The first song Sterbelied (Song of dying translated from Christina Rossetti’s “Requiem”) sets the gentle , even wistful tone of much of the cycle. The second, Dies eine kann mein Sehnen nimmer fassen (“This my longing will never grasp”) has a text which protests about enforced parting a bit more, and is a touch more animated. The superb nocturne Mond, so gehst du wieder auf (“Moon, so you rise again”) is at times a duet with the celeste, one of many fine orchestral touches. Here and in the closing Gefasster Abschied (“Resigned farewell”) Skelton catches the elusive manner of this cycle surprisingly well. This is not music that plays to his strengths especially, as there is little scope for his Heldentenor upper range, or his dramatic projection, so valuable in Lehár’s Fieber . Instead he has to draw on his more baritonal middle and lower notes, and his affecting quiet singing, which suits the intimacy of the cycle. I prefer his account to the only other one I know, which is also very good, from the alto Linda Finnie (Chandos, 1993).

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, in its full string orchestra version, is a concert hall staple, but gains much from coming straight after Fried’s vocal setting, since the structure of Schoenberg’s work is as much determined by that of the poem as is Fried’s song. The Schoenberg is helpfully tracked on this SACD to reflect the sections of the score. The BBCSO strings are an excellent group, and the scoring calls on the skill of just a few of them at times, as well as the full band for big climaxes. Egon Wellesz said this work “suffered from an excess of climaxes”, so the conductor needs to graduate and relate them to each other, which Gardner does to the degree that we do not feel that “excess”. He above all has that sense of ebb and flow that holds the attention in this continually evolving work. Even he cannot fully illuminate all of the denser counterpoint - one perhaps needs the sextet original for that - but the fine SACD recording keeps the key strands of the argument easy to follow.

This is a most recommendable disc, and one with a unique programme, so that comparisons hardly apply. The value of the disc lies in the context it gives to the best-known work, and the discoveries that most of the vocal items will be for collectors. For myself, the Fried and Lehár items were quite new, and I shall return to them in particular. Stuart Skelton is in very good voice, taxed only in a couple of passing moments by the demanding writing, but bringing real feeling, even identification, to these pieces. Gardner here continues to demonstrate his mastery of the musical style of the period, as shown before in his Chandos discs of early Schoenberg with his Bergen forces; Gurrelieder, and Erwartung and Pelleas und Melisande. The very good booklet note by Paul Griffiths gives all the background you will need for the more obscure works.

Roy Westbrook

See also review by Gwyn Parry-Jones

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