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Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht
A selective survey by Ralph Moore

Composed in in 1899, Verklärte Nacht stands on the cusp of a new century and as such is a work which may be viewed as a sort of watershed between two worlds. Janus-like, it looks back to late 19C Romanticism and the harmonic language of Tristan but also forward to the Expressionist experimentalism of 20C music. It is a work I adore and would readily take it to my desert island along with Gurrelieder, which Schoenberg began working on the following yar in 1900 and is similarly both retrospective and innovative.

Schoenberg was a prodigy who all too soon became bored and frustrated with what he saw as the constraints of the traditional, Western classical music system yet via the evolution of his compositional technique into serialism it seems to me that he simply imposed upon himself just as rigid a musical framework without any corollary aesthetic benefit; I much more disposed to taking pleasure in Expressionist art and literature than in its music. I therefore generally avoid works of the Second Viennese School and can only regret Schoenberg’s development, remaining unrepentant in my absolute antipathy to Schoenberg’s later, twelve-tone compositions which, far from encouraging me to share his sense of liberation from tonalism, seem to me to be quite removed from music as I understand it. To be fair, Schoenberg never expressed contempt or regret for these earlier masterworks, however; indeed, he retained an affection for them and always recognised that Verklärte Nacht remained his most popular and frequently performed composition.

Eugene Ormandy made the first recording of it in 1934 but I have not considered that or the ten or so earliest recordings on the grounds of sonic quality, assuming that the general listener wants one in good, modern sound – although I do include one historic recommendation for its excellence and it is in more than tolerable mono. Nor do arrangements such as that for Piano Trio much interest me, as I think smaller-scale versions, although interesting, ultimately compromise the sonority required and cannot do justice to the soundscape Schoenberg envisaged, so I have excluded those.

That leaves us with mostly modern recordings in two main forms: the original sextet which Schoenberg composed in just three weeks, of which version something like forty recordings are available. He then orchestrated it in 1917, revising that arrangement in 1943; it is that later transcription which is invariably recorded by larger ensembles and there are perhaps ninety recordings of it in the discography. As is always the case with my surveys, I cannot hope to cover anything like all those, but I have (re)auditioned and included twenty-nine here which are, I hope, mostly representative of the best.

Appreciation of the work is surely enhanced by reference to Richard Dehmel's poem which inspired the work; Schoenberg composed it under the spur of a passionate attachment to Mathilde von Zemlinsky (the sister of his teacher Alexander), whom he would later marry. Although it is written in one movement, it has five distinct sections corresponding to the five stanzas of Dehmel's poem and that correlation is made easier to appreciate when recordings provide separate tracking numbers for each section – indeed, it is irritating when they do not. I append the poem below for your convenience.

Its duration can be anything between 25 and 33 minutes and in my experience the better readings are usually on the longer side without sounding in any sense leisurely, but, as ever, timings are not by means the most important criteria, as Mitropoulos himself demonstrates, veering between under 25 minutes in March 1958 in his New York studio recording and 31 minutes in September of the same year live in Vienna – and both are great performances.

Pacing and proportion are more important than timings to a successful delivery of the work; Schoenberg (who changed his name from the more obviously Germanic “Schönberg” after his emigration to the United States) gives each section specific timing instructions and not all conductors adhere to the framework he provides. I don’t mind that too much as long as the result coheres and we don’t have too many choppy gear-changes or sudden, isolated climaxes.

Having any preference for either the sextet and the orchestral version is complicated by the fact that the chamber version is starker and reveals more readily the complexities of Schoenberg’s harmonies and counterpoint whereas the advantage of a larger string orchestra is the impact of those glorious, ecstatic, climaxes such as the D major chord which denotes the man’s forgiveness. The orchestral version has understandably attracted some Big-Name conductors at the helm of crack orchestras; five below appear twice - but the same is true of some very eminent chamber groups. The answer, of course, is to have at least one recording of each version.

It seems to me that despite the gloom and Angst of its opening, the work is ultimately optimistic and life-affirming; Schoenberg’s glorious music portrays how unconditional love - and, especially, the generosity of spirit shown by the man, in combination with the woman’s genuine repentance - overcomes the obstacles to the lovers’ reconciliation and reunion. It is, as Schoenberg himself said, “programme music” with a narrative element, but it is primarily a moral fable concerning human behaviour which, again as the composer said, “can be appreciated as ‘pure’ music”. There is so much in it that is very beautiful, from the glittering depiction of a cold, crisp moonlit night to the duet between violin and cello symbolising the dialogue between the woman and the man, and the extended coda which modifies and develops preceding themes into a paean elevating and transforming potentially tragic events into a miracle of redemption – a “transfigured night”. I am baffled by the response of listeners who find in it only despair and cannot hear how the transformational power of forgiveness, acceptance and resignation is so eloquently conveyed by the rapturous lyricism of Schoenberg’s peroration.

The Recordings

The Hollywood String Quartet (augmented); 1950 Testament (studio; mono) – sextet version
 
This was only the second recording of the sextet – the first was made as early 1924-25 – and is rightly famous; the aged and ailing Schoenberg himself was so mightily impressed when the players here gave him a private performance in his home that he wrote the notes for the release of their recording, as I mention in my introduction above.

There is a grand, mesmeric quality to the playing here - the first climax at 3:53 is breath-taking - and despite the limitations of the mono sound, subtleties such as dynamic gradations emerge very clearly and both the unanimity and passion of the playing come through with striking immediacy. The upper frequencies of Felix Slatkin’s violin can sound a little harsh but a little wiriness is not out of place in this music and the shimmering beauty of his playing with generous but not obtrusive vibrato is most seductive; similarly, the cello’s warm, buzzing tone is well caught and the balance between the instruments is ideal – yet only one microphone was used. Despite the glamour of the playing, there is nothing meretricious about their affect and, crucially, their intonation is true throughout – perhaps matched only by the Orpheus ensemble below.

The sound might be vintage but there is an added allure in the paradoxical fact that the playing is both timeless and a commemoration of the style of a vanished age. The inclusion of Tully Potter’s enormously informative and entertaining notes, detailing the musicians’ careers and relationship with Schoenberg, the composer’s own notes and the Drehmel’s poem with a translation make this an exemplary and indispensable historical issue.

Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski; 1957 EMI (studio; stereo) – string orchestra version
 
Billed as “Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra”, that was apparently a pseudonym assumed by the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra for contractual reasons, just as the New York Philharmonic were called the “Stadium Symphony Orchestra” when Stokowski conducted them in the summer season.

As you might expect, this is music which ideally suits Stokowski’s temperament and soundworld; the orchestra soars and swoons in much the same way as his animated orchestral showpieces like Francesca da Rimini. I don’t think it is my imagination which prompts me to observe that, as with the first recording above, there is more than a hint of 50’s Hollywood glamour about the music-making here; it is achingly intense, but tender and passionate and if the soloists go heavy on the vibrato to the point of courting a certain saccharine quality, that is part and parcel of Stokowski’s approach. Sometimes there is just a hint of scrappiness in the more agitated passages such as that beginning around 8:40 and intonation isn’t quite as flawless as the very best, but the spirit of the music-making is unimpeachable.

The stereo sound is miraculous for its era, allowing both deep sonority and detail to emerge, although inevitably it isn’t as sumptuous as the best modern, digital versions, but there is great dynamic range and only a hint of paperiness in the upper regions. The big, dark chord exactly half way through the 28 minutes which heralds the reprise of the Love Theme is as warm and resonant as you could wish, testimony to the skill of the recording engineers.

This is yet another classic recording which will disappoint no-one, especially devotees of the “Old Magician” although audiophiles will look to more recent accounts.

Strings of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Dimitri Mitropoulos; 1958 Urania; Sony (studio; stereo)

Recorded in March 1958, this is of particular interest for the contrast it presents with Mitropoulos’ live performance in Vienna the following September (see next below). It appears to be in narrow, rather wiry stereo but is perfectly listenable, especially as the listener is soon swept up and along by the fierce concentration of Mitropoulos’ reading. Nonetheless the shriek on the strings and the drive of his approach will both be a little off-putting to those whose preference leans towards luxurious digital sound and a more sultry, languid delivery. Having said that, the skill with the conductor shapes and phrases the first big climax six minutes in is really arresting and the orchestra plays with grim intensity, bringing out the nightmarish quality of the music in the stressful second section. Mitropoulos is very free with his variation of tempi, even within a single bar but it never sounds artificial or applied – and the concluding section is beautifully played. Having said that, there are moments here where it can sound on the road to scrambled.

In the end, mainly for reasons of its sound, but also perhaps its haste, this can hardly be recommended as a first choice but it certainly has its appeal for fans of Mitropoulos and for anyone who wants to hear his novel, more urgent way with this wonderful music.

The single CD Urania appears to have been discontinued and this is currently available only as part of the New York Philharmonic 175th anniversary big box of 65 CDs issued in 2017 but it can still be purchased as a download.

Vienna Philharmonic/Dimitri Mitropoulos; 1958 Music & Arts (live; mono) – string orchestra version

For some reason, this the time of live performance in Vienna the following September, Mitropoulos had re-thought his approach to this music between the New York studio recording the previous March. Obviously, this being live is a major factor but there is definitely a different kind of slow-burn absorption here; it is fully six minutes longer than in New York and at times almost drags in comparison, especially as Mitropoulos is once again unafraid to linger even more over the most emotionally intense passages. Tempi for different sections here run to both extremely fast and slow but he keeps the whole thing together by virtue of his concentration.

Surprisingly, the tuning of the VPO is not as secure as that of the NYP, there are slips, a little audience noise and the sound is markedly inferior, being screechy and faintly crumbly mono but the power of the interpretation goes a long way to transcending those disadvantages. Once again, the shimmering final section is just glorious.

As with his previous recording, for a variety of reasons this cannot be other than a supplement for interested parties, especially as it is essentially historic, but I urge you to hear it – even if you only tune in on YouTube, here.

Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra; 1961 Guild (live; mono) – string orchestra version

I reviewed this almost a decade ago and reproduce here the essence of my response a sit still holds:

You would count on Stokowski of all conductors to have its measure of this music and so it proves here. It is gloriously rhapsodic, played by some of the best musicians to be found amongst the New York orchestras in the early 1950s. Even so, and as much I admire this performance, I derive little pleasure from the screechy, crumbly mono sound here despite Guild’s best efforts to rehabilitate it. There are too many great recordings to justify recommending this one unless you are a die-hard Stokowski completist and if you want him, you have recourse to his studio recording above.

Los Angeles Philharmonic/Zubin Mehta; 1967 Decca (studio; stereo) – string orchestra version
 
Mehta did some fine work with the LAPO, polishing their sound and producing many recordings which have endured. This one, however, I at first find a little turgid, despite the sumptuousness of the playing, then rushed when Mehta alternately changes up a gear too quickly for the more impassioned passages before defaulting to a very slow tempo which comes over as too languorous and courts stasis, as if he hasn’t quite got right the relationship amongst the tempi of the different sections. The first appearance of the Big Tune is decidedly laboured. Individual sections are beautiful but propulsion and coherence are sacrificed to immediate and transient effect. There is still much to enjoy here but the standard of performance is so high among so many competing recordings that I have to apply rigorous standards to arrive at any kind of hierarchy, so I strive to find fault. Making it yet harder to dismiss is the fact that the mid-60’s stereo analogue sound is excellent, with only very slight his and rumble, even if it is rather plush and soupy, which slightly obscures textures. The same orchestra who recorded it a decade earlier with Stokowski might not have been as polished but they brought greater flair to that earlier recording.

Having said all that, there is a sudden sea-change around twenty minutes in to this 31-minute recording and I find myself swept along by their ecstatic playing over those last ten minutes, where suddenly the orchestra seems galvanised into recapturing the spirit of Stokie for Mehta – almost sufficient to make me eat my words and forget any reservations I had about their playing in the first three sections.
 
English Chamber Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim; 1967 EMI/Warner (studio; stereo) – string orchestra version
 
While I was researching and preparing this survey I several times came across the assertion that this was a stellar account, but I had not previously been acquainted with it. Now that I am, I am to some degree impressed by its quality – not least of the sound which is remarkably rich and full – but I do find some of the phrasing rather heavy and over-emphatic; the “shimmering, starlit” is underplayed in favour of underlining the tragic, “Sturm un Drang” element of the scenario, with pregnant pauses and bass-heavy climaxes such that for me it emerges as rather Grand Guignol and a tad self-conscious. It is, in fact, rather odd and I find its relentless portentousness cloying – rather than generating expectation, the end of the third section sounds as if it is going to plough into the sand and the momentum fails to pick up at the start of the fourth section. I know Schoenberg’s instructions are “Schwer...Sehr breit und langsam” but this goes to extremes – not so much in actual tempo but in phrasing - which undermines tension. There is also some unfortunate tuning from the double basses three minutes into that fourth section and I really do not hear the kind of ecstatic release I demand in the climaxes of the final section. This is not a version to which I’d readily turn given the many options.

New York Philharmonic/Pierre Boulez; 1973 Sony (studio; stereo) – string orchestra version

Boulez clearly had an affinity with this work and it comes through here in every bar; there is nothing cold or analytical about his approach - he strikes just the right balance between terror and consolation, so that the playing is both highly Romantic but always has an uneasy edge to it. There is also that indefinable sense of organic unity here which eludes conductors too preoccupied with individual point-making. I cannot find flaw in the intonation or timbre of the orchestral playing and the strings play with melting sweetness in the D major opening to the Adagio but also find real astringency for the anguished and stretto passages

The stereo sound might not be as deep and detailed as more modern digital accounts but is to my ears wholly satisfying, with excellent balance and the kind of glow to it which characterised the best analogue recordings. It is strange how some conductors – Stokowski, Mitropoulos Karajan, Levine and here, Boulez – “capture the rapture” and others can leave the listener cold. This one hits the mark triumphantly.
 
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Hebert von Karajan; 1973 DG (studio; stereo) – string orchestra version
 
Schoenberg, von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic are all three here at their most alluring; this is later Karajan at his best in a period which also produced such beautiful recordings as his Madama Butterfly - by no means all mid-70's Karajan was mannered and self-conscious. The music suits perfectly the silky virtuosity of the orchestra; it begins with brooding magnificence, then Karajan brings overwhelming passion and intensity to those thrilling climaxes when the strings in unison sing out their hymn of forgiveness under a starlit winter sky. I know no music like for its sense of soaring ecstasy and coruscating tenderness and that Karajan understood it is unmistakable. However, despite enveloping the listener in a warm blanket of chromatic sound this is a more restrained account than Karajan’s even more theatrical, expansive live performance in 1988 (see below); turn to that for a more visceral experience. The sound is of good quality, if a little opaque – the merest tape hiss and less well defined than that later live recording, despite the latter’s venue of the pre-renovated Royal Festival Hall compared with the Philharmonie as per here, where everything is more distanced.

This stupendous performance became instantly even more attractive when it was re-released on DG Originals coupled this time with the Pelleas und Melisande symphonic poem rather than the Variations, which remains unapproachable to the average punter. It is also available in a DG 3CD set of Second Viennese School music with Webern and Berg.

LaSalle Quartet; 1982 DG (studio; digital) – sextet version
 
I reviewed this re-issue recently and reproduce part of that review here:
 
The opening… is very slow, rich and sombre - almost halting and hesitant, with little sliding elisions and portamenti between notes. The effect is ominous, but I miss a certain drive and there is a definite lack of tension affecting the flow of the music and giving it a disjointed, episodic feeling; nor do I get much sense of flowering ecstasy at the start of the second section. Comparison with the famous vintage recording by the augmented Hollywood Quartet or the Talich, also recorded in the 80’s, suggests that the combination of the closely recorded, slightly muddy digital sound given to the LaSalle and their consistently warm timbre robs the music of much of its impact. I never thought it possible to make Verklärte Nacht sound too “Romantic” but this music must not sound comfortable and “upholstered”; despite its episodes of lush harmonies, it needs to be as sharp and bracing as the cold, starlit night depicted in Richard Dehmel’s poem. The lead cello plays the opening of the fourth section beautifully, with rich, burnished tone, then the lead violin soars sweetly but although they begin to generate some passion in the finale, ultimately this performance never really takes off and emerges as rather dull.

Members of The Ensemble InterContemporain/musical supervision by Pierre Boulez; 1983 Sony (studio; digital) – sextet version
 
I first heard this on YouTube and knew I had to own it on CD despite some attendant, if minor, disadvantages, such as the loud sniff from the lead violinist on the upbeat before every phrase, the restriction to one track and the fact that I have no desire to listen to the other pieces on the compilation disc.

All of which I am prepared to overlook, as there is a raw passion and ferocious attack about the playing here which is utterly compelling. I am unclear quite what role Boulez had as “musical supervisor” but whatever he did galvanised these players into playing like demons. There are instances of almost grotesquely emphatic strokes and considerable freedom in phrasing, but despite the freedom and ferocity of their bowing, intonation is superb throughout.

The early digital sound is correspondingly full and vivid – perhaps the best of any string sextet version here. The pizzicato plucking nine minutes in occurs almost in your left ear and the thrum and thwack and click and clack of the close recording of the strings have an almost physical impact. You are in the front row, for sure and living the drama. The delivery is so searing it leaves the listener delightedly limp and drained; sample the playing from 22:30 for just a minute to hear what I mean. This is special; as you can tell, I do recommend hearing it…

Schönberg Ensemble; 1984 Philips (studio; digital) – string orchestra version
 
Something I noticed while traversing so many versions of Verklärte Nacht was how quickly into a recording I could divine whether the performance was going to engage me – and this one takes no time at all to draw the listener in to the complexities of this wonderful music. Following on from the Ensemble InterContemporain’s assault on the score, this is a similarly raw, grim account; the Schönberg Ensemble’s string tone is harsh, acerbic and uncompromising – and I love it! The scrape and shudder of their tremolos and the ferocity of their attack on phrases are really arresting but then they inject a plaintive note of yearning into the lyrical passages. They are aided by a forensic recording which reveals every layer of the dense score – the playing is so present and phrasing and dynamics are perfect. I love the trim, fast vibrato of the lead violinist, too.

However, even if for much of the time this is a rather grim, dour account. We still have balance as it suddenly blossoms in the tenderer moments, providing rich contrasts – and the playing is superlative. This is another thoroughly recommendable version.

Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin/Riccardo Chailly; 1987 Decca (studio; stereo) – string orchestra version

This is the adjunct to Chailly’s Gurrelieder, which I find uninspiring and the slightly distanced, and the soft-edged sound doesn’t help. It is certainly more than competent as a performance but like the bigger work, is often too low-key in delivery, without the surging, pulsing urgency which marks the best accounts. Everything proceeds quite decorously and it hangs together mainly because Chailly takes few risks – although admittedly things do suddenly heat up in the central crisis and there is more tension until a rather limp D major chord heralds an underwhelming reconciliation and it seems that the concluding sections are going to be short on ecstasy – but then around twenty-one minutes in, Chailly suddenly again applies the kind of intensity which has periodically been lacking and just to compound the impression of inconsistency the final pages are lovely, bringing out the best in the orchestra.

I am a little puzzled as this seems to have been some people’s go-to version for many years but despite its beaux moments I can’t hear anything like the consistent power and passion I find in the best recordings.
 
English String Orchestra/William Boughton; 1987 Nimbus Records (studio; digital) – string orchestra version
 
A very resonant recording acoustic sets up an atmospheric but cavernous ambience here which will not be to all tastes. The soloists are often spotlighted, making them over-prominent and leaving the main body of strings rather recessed and muddy. That acoustic also militates against the listener’s ear registering detail and dynamic variation. Despite the slow introduction, this soon accelerates to become one of the fastest accounts but does not seem to be afflicted by undue haste; there is clearly some lovey playing here but also fleeting moments of dubious intonation and I am not knocked out by the climactic moments.

Were the sound more grateful, I would be more inclined to enthuse about this but there are more sharply delineated recordings among the many competitive versions.
 
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Hebert von Karajan; 1988 Testament (live; stereo) – string orchestra version
 
Ever since its issue, this live recording has elicited justified encomiums from reviewers and I can whole-heartedly endorse their enthusiasm for it. Don't be put off by the fact that the sepia cover photo, typical of the rather quaint Testament label presentation, suggests that this is an elderly, hissy, boxy live recording: it is far from that, being caught in excellent, sharp, well-defined analogue sound which is actually rather better than many a studio version. By all accounts, that evening in October 1988 was a special, not to say potentially fraught, event: Karajan was already frail and ill - he resigned as conductor the following April and died in July - and the start of the concert was delayed by an hour as a result of the BPO's instruments being delayed by the French customs - yet nothing could sound more liberated, energised and sheerly inspired than these two performances, both superior to Karajan's studio recordings, superb though they were, too. You have to endure a little mild hacking in certain quiet moments but this is more than compensated for by the electricity of the playing. This certainly gives to lie to the old canard that Karajan was invariably superficial and lacklustre in his "declining years"; apparently, he barely moved, yet the Berlin Philharmonic play like men and women possessed.

You have here a peerless showpiece for a great orchestra, conducted by a master, in splendid sound.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra; 1989 DG (studio; digital) – string orchestra version
 
This is another seamlessly executed, absolutely glorious recording without any flaw or weakness. The flexibility and lyricism of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra are things I have almost come to take for granted, as every recording of theirs I know is peerless. The slight novelty in this recording is that they steer a middle course between the intimacy of the sextet version and the lushness of a full string section by fielding a team of fifteen string players, who have both the heft and delicacy to convey every nuance of the music, owing to their exceptional cohesion, homogeneity and resonance. This is a performance which has weight while remaining light on its feet. As is well known, they play without a conductor and as result seemingly pay more attention to each other so what emerges is a triumph of sensitive cooperation.

Talich Quartet; 1989 Phaia (studio; digital) - sextet version
 
This is another release I reviewed long ago for MusicWeb and again, I reproduce here an adapted extract from that assessment as I have no cause to revise my opinion:

The reputation of the Talich quartet pretty much guarantees a fine performance and they are accompanied by two first-rate musicians to complete a superlative ensemble. They are recorded at very close quarters which ensures clarity and transparency of sound. It also permits the listener to hear every nuance of their admirably refined and impeccably tuned playing.

For all that, I greatly enjoy the performances here, comparison with other favourite recordings revealed them to be superior in some crucial aspects. The Hollywood, for example, adopt broader, more indulgent tempi, hence their overall timing is some two minutes longer; they also find marginally more warmth and Schwung in their phrasing. One crucial point for me is the reprise of the big melody at 5:57 presumably depicting the woman’s delight at the prospect of impending motherhood, where I could do with more attack from the Talich. The same is true towards the end at 30:40. I have to provide timings in this format as the Phaia disc irritatingly provides only one track for the entire piece. Testament gives us five tracks corresponding to the stanzas of Dehmel’s poem and the text to boot, so the listener may better appreciate the links between the written word and the music.

The opening must establish a sense of tension and even impending menace. For me the playing of the Talich tends more towards lugubrious than portentous but there isn’t much in it. It is so good to hear this music played in sound which first permits the first violin to sing the upper line so sweetly and secondly retains a proper balance between the instruments, and they really find form in the shimmering apotheosis of the last three minutes which close the work. The tone of the two cellos is simply luscious and the desired rhapsodic climax is achieved. Nonetheless, some might still find their classical restraint a tad understated compared with more overt interpretations.
 
London Festival Orchestra/Ross Pople; 1990 ASV (studio; digital) – string orchestra version
 
I reviewed this a couple of years ago and here is a digest of my findings:

Ross Pople has made his own arrangement based on Schoenberg’s transcription for orchestral strings. My untrained ear cannot hear the difference between them but I can hear that it is wonderfully played, with beautiful phrasing and impeccable intonation. He does not produce the lush, velvety sound of Karajan – he has leaner, clearer orchestral textures, as he does not augment the strings – but he brings the same passion and intensity to his conducting which sweeps the listener away on surging waves of melody. He takes a few minutes longer than some but that accommodates the unabashed indulgence of his interpretation of this most Romantic of works which nonetheless opens the door a crack onto 20C lyric Expressionism. I defy anyone who loves music of this genre not to respond to the searing, stringendo passage starting around 6:40 and the subsequent lyrical outpouring at 7:00. Everything is perfectly gauged to enhance the poignant narrative of Dehmel’s poem and at no point does it drag, despite the comparatively leisurely timing.

The digital sound here is superb, with an ideal balance between the deep, resonant bass lines and violins which swoop and soar stratospherically without harshness. There is a palpable joy is the music-making here which readily communicates itself to the listener.

Unfortunately, this CD has long been out of print but it is still possible to source copies and we must hope that one of the reissue labels or companies such as ArkivMusic or Presto might pick it up.

Berliner Solisten; 1989 Teldec (studio; digital) – sextet version

Another superb account of the sextet version – rich, cupped sound, ample vibrato, impeccable tuning and superb ensemble, with a really flexible sense of phrasing and a rhapsodic release at the climaxes – it’s all here.

There’s a sweetness to their tone which some might find cloying but I revel in it. If you want a sparer, starker approach, look elsewhere to such as the Ensemble InterContemporain above, but in contrast to their “full-fat” tone in the lyrical passages, they find a really lean, stringent tone at the end of the middle section to create tension and I do not want to imply that there is any lack of bite in the playing here. Furthermore, the precise digital sound really brings out the twang of pizzicato – and their urgency, in a performance running to under 29 minutes ensures that there is never a hint of lethargy or indulgence. The conclusion is meltingly beautiful.

It adds to the attraction of this recording that it is part of a really thoughtful and rewarding programme of string pieces.

The Raphael Ensemble 1990 Helios (studio; digital) - sextet version
 
I have long prized the Raphael Ensemble in Brahms’ Sextets, Bruckner’s String Quintet and Dvořák’s String Quintet and Sextet, so had the highest expectations of this recording, too. I could, however, compare this to the recording by the Talich above, in that I find it intermittently lugubrious and lacking intensity at key points; it is simply too slow in parts and the point-making seems too laboured. The final two sections in particular, fail to take off; it’s all rather polite. Listen to the climaxes at 7:30, at the end of band 8 and at 1:50 in track 9 to hear what I mean – these are not the places for understatement and refinement. These things are relative; obviously this is professional playing of the highest order and there are many moments of great beauty but somehow overall it does not grab me as more vivid recordings do.

The digital engineering provides close, up-front sound of exceptional quality. Oddly, although the cover and booklet denote this as being contained on one track, number 5, it is in fact properly allocated five separate tracks, nos. 5 to 9, but no individual track timings are provided. The full notes in the booklet do, however, also provide a text and translation of the poem.

Juilliard String Quartet (augmented: Walter Trampler, viola; Yo-Yo Ma, cello); 1991 Sony (studio; digital) – sextet version
 
Such a distinguished line-up promises much and the Juilliard, auspiciously augmented by two great artists, do not disappoint. They open by producing a deep, steady, buzzing tone which is wonderfully foreboding and the digital sound provides just the kind of depth, clarity and immediacy that I find lacking in, for example, the Nimbus recording above. Then there is a silky, singing beauty in their lyrical lines but also plenty of breathless urgency when required. I also note that they apply the dynamic variation missing in more gung-ho or restrained accounts. Their delivery of Part 4 is as broad, Romantic and soulful as that of any ensemble here and they manage to create that delicate, filigree sound so essential to fabricate starlit magic. Perhaps the unvarying emphasis upon tonal beauty is less gripping than, say, the Ensemble InterContemporain above but that is a matter of taste – and for me, there is no lack of concomitant drama. The way they build from around seven minutes int the fourth section, then hold off and pull back before letting the big “forgiveness theme” explode, is breath-taking. The final section is dreamy perfection – and they drain their habitually refulgent tone to give the final bars a reedy, etiolated timbre in order to reinforce their other-worldliness – clever.

As you can tell, I love this recording and place it in a par with the aforementioned 1983 Boulez-mentored Sony version; sadly, it is currently discontinued.
 
Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra/James Levine; 1991 DG (live; digital) – string orchestra version
 
I appreciate that the late James Levine departed this life deservedly under a cloud but he did some fine things with the BPO and I try to listen objectively. His style was hardly diametrically opposed to Karajan’s and the orchestra’s sound here was still essentially the same as what we hear in the 1988 live recording above, as Abbado had hardly begun to impose his own will on their Klang and performance practice. As a result, we hear the world’s finest orchestra in full flight under the baton of a conductor who was never shy of weight and grandeur. This is such a rich, expansive account and although this is supposedly recorded live in concert, I wonder about that, as there isn’t a peep out of any audience, nor is the sound distinguishable from a studio recording. The soloists are virtuosic, the execution of the music flawless, the pacing ideal, the climaxes stunning – nor does Levine miss the deep pathos and ineffable tenderness of the forgiveness motif. He is one of those conductors who gauge the lava-stream ebb and flow of the music perfectly so that the whole piece coheres and hangs together organically, avoiding any hint of the episodic.

Whatever else he was, Levine was a great musician.
 
Philharmonia Orchestra/Giuseppe Sinopoli; 1992 DG (studio; digital) – string orchestra version
 
There is always that little frisson of anticipation attached to embarking upon any Sinopoli recording: will he amaze and delight with the novelty and profundity of his insights or frustrate and alienate his listener with wilful idiosyncrasy? This is one of the longest accounts in the catalogue, which is a neutral observation until one hears how he uses that extra time - but there is always the danger self-indulgence leading to stasis. Then there is the question of tolerance for Sinopoli’s vocal embellishments, punctuating every note, which for some are endearing and enhance the immediacy of the recording but for others are irritatingly intrusive. The Philharmonia plays beautifully, of course, but for me this is one of those recordings where the listener metaphorically stands back and hears a carefully calculated rendition of the score which fails to engage.

A random example of how Sinopoli over-eggs his pudding: at 7:30 he slows down to plonk out the chords incongruously then slows down even more the statement of the main theme while happily singing along - it’s self-conscious and counter-productive. The music simply never takes off.

I am usually a firm Sinopoli advocate; not here.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim; 1994 Sony; Apex (studio; digital) – string orchestra version
 
Having found some oddities in Barenboim’s 1967 recording with the ECO, I was interested to hear how he would treat the work nearly thirty years later with a bigger orchestra. There certainly seems to be more inner tension and propulsion in this account and less self-conscious point-making, allowing the music to flow without inhibiting a sense of an over-arching structure. Having said that, the sound-engineering is a little dull and distant and there isn’t the same sheen on the Chicago strings that we hear from, say, the BPO. Distinguished he may be, but I am afraid that Barenboim very rarely enthuses me either as a conductor or a performer and nothing about this workaday performance changes that. It is difficult to make this work boring but Barenboim comes closest of all the conductors here to doing so.
 
Brandis Quartet (augmented); 1998 Nimbus (studio; digital) – sextet version
 
I complain above about Nimbus’ engineering for the English String Orchestra recorded a decade before this; this is undoubtedly much better – closer, cleaner, more detailed, yet still with plenty of depth and resonance, so no more complaints there.

The opening is very drained and lugubrious, which is clearly a deliberate artistic choice. I don’t find it easy on the ear, but nobody ever said this should be – at least in the earlier, more anguished movements. However, this is a very serious and heavy approach, and as I have several times stated in this survey, I like there always to be some sense of a sparkling, starlit night; it is unremittingly tragic in tone. The playing is very fine but also very dark and - dare I say? – Germanic in its gravity and individual instruments are not so much an ensemble as participants in a succession of tortured exclamations by one voice after an another. It is certainly a different and even thought-provoking interpretative stance but I find it unbalanced. The real criterion for balance, however, is whether the preceding gloom is lifted and counteracted by the central “Sehr breit und langsam” section – and I don’t think it is, as I get little sense of ecstasy or release; the starlight does not pierce the mists. The conclusion is still lovely – how can it fair to be with music and performers such as these? – but apotheosis is reluctant to be summoned.

You may feel differently about it and you can test both my and your own response by sampling this on YouTube. It’s not for me, however.
 
Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa; 1998 Naxos (studio; digital) – string orchestra version
 
This benefits from deep, warm digital sound and a steady hand on the tiller; we should never be surprised when a recording on Naxos competes with the premium labels but this is an outright winner which never sounds rushed or indulgent and really cranks up the pace and tension at key points. Just occasionally intonation in might not be quite as consistent as that of top orchestras but any insecurity is fleeting; I would defy anybody to find fault with this in a blind listening. The only drawback for me is that it is too refined and polite at those moments, especially in the guilt-ridden second section, when more bite and abandon in phrasal attack would more readily convey the gnawing of raw, post-Freudian emotion – there is just a hint of the “pet savage” (to borrow a famous phrase) about the sophisticated music-making here.
 
The Helsinki Strings/Csaba and Géza Szilvay; 2000 Apex (studio; digital) – string orchestra version
 
This is on a very attractive compilation album at a bargain price. The string sound is not as plush as some German orchestras but there is no lack of depth in their sound and they take their time over the big moments, such as the first great climax at 7:25, which is a peach, and the succession of repeated tutti chords denoting the woman’s confession about half way through from thirteen minutes onwards is suitably weighty; then again, the build up from 23 minutes in is tremendous. The tempi are relatively slow and there is plenty of Romantic yearning in this large-scale interpretation as well as the requisite tension. Everything about this is well-judged, technically and emotionally and it is entirely satisfying; the transition from shame and despair to redemption is wholly convincing.

This is unfortunately one of those one-track recordings; never mind.

Sextet of the Orchestra da Camera di Mantova/Alessandro Maria Carnelli; 2015 Brilliant Classics (live; digital)
 
I reviewed this in 2016 and have adapted that review here:

I have reservations concerning the quality of this performance. That it is musical and competent, I do not question, but in comparison with the really gripping accounts, 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. The best of the 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. These differences extend to the ability of the respective lead violinists to create rapture: many previous soloists are distinctly sweeter of tone and more released than the merely able Filippo Lama. Finally, despite, or perhaps because of, being recorded live, many enjoy better sound – either that or the spirit of recordings such as that by the augmented Hollywood Quartet transcends their hissy mono recording.

I cannot recommend this over the established, classic recordings.

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner; 2020 Chandos (studio; digital) - string orchestra version
 
Two MWI colleagues have already fully and eloquently reviewed (review; review) this recent issue and I have little to add to their endorsements. This is wholly recommendable with regard to the playing, interpretation and sound; its dynamic variety is especially skilful and there is a lovely glow to what is clearly another “big band” approach to vie with recordings by such as the BPO. The soloists, too, are distinguished. My merest reservations are that just occasionally I think Gardner overdoes the slowing down for the most poignant and lyrical passages, thereby losing some of the tension, and the pizzicato strokes could be more emphatically articulated, so there is a slight lack of the wildness and savagery I really want to hear. This is nonetheless very fine; it is only in comparison with my absolute favourites that I find it wanting.


Recommendations
It must surely be to Schoenberg’s credit as a composer that Verklärte Nacht seems to bring out the best in so many of the musicians who undertake it; a palpable sense of joy infuses so many recordings here, as if the players are inspired by its challenges and rewards. As a result, it emerges as one of the luckiest works on record; it is rarely the case that almost every recording I include in a survey has sufficient merit to be among the prime recommendations, but I could easily endorse any one of a score or more above, so the suggestions below are to some degree arbitrary and even otiose. A great performance of the orchestral transcription is a very different experience from the more intimate chamber version and the devotee of this music will want at least one of each – so I have tried to simplify the task of making recommendations of a first choice in each of five categories:

Historical sextet: Hollywood String Quartet
Historical orchestral: VPO 1958/ Mitropoulos
Sextet version: Members of The Ensemble InterContemporain/Juilliard String Quartet 1991
Intermediate forces: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
“Big band”: BPO 1988/Karajan

Having said that, I find great merit and satisfaction in all and any of the following and could just as easily swap any one of them for those above:

Sextet: Schönberg Ensemble 1984; Berliner Solisten 1989
Orchestra: LAP 1958/Stokowski; New York Philharmonic 1973/Boulez; 1973 BPO 1973/Karajan; London Festival Orchestra1990 /Pople; BPO 1991/Levine; Helsinki Strings 2000.
 
Ralph Moore
 
Appendix

Weib und Welt
(Woman and the World) by Richard Dehmel

Zwei Menschen gehn durch kahlen, kalten Hain;
der Mond läuft mit, sie schaun hinein.
Der Mond läuft über hohe Eichen;
kein Wölkchen trübt das Himmelslicht,
in das die schwarzen Zacken reichen.
Die Stimme eines Weibes spricht:

"Ich trag ein Kind, und nit von Dir,
ich geh in Sünde neben Dir.
Ich hab mich schwer an mir vergangen.
Ich glaubte nicht mehr an ein Glück
und hatte doch ein schwer Verlangen
nach Lebensinhalt, nach Mutterglück
und Pflicht; da hab ich mich erfrecht,
da ließ ich schaudernd mein Geschlecht
von einem fremden Mann umfangen,
und hab mich noch dafür gesegnet.
Nun hat das Leben sich gerächt:
nun bin ich Dir, o Dir, begegnet."

Sie geht mit ungelenkem Schritt.
Sie schaut empor; der Mond läuft mit.
Ihr dunkler Blick ertrinkt in Licht.
Die Stimme eines Mannes spricht:

"Das Kind, das Du empfangen hast,
sei Deiner Seele keine Last,
o sieh, wie klar das Weltall schimmert!
Es ist ein Glanz um alles her;
Du treibst mit mir auf kaltem Meer,
doch eine eigne Wärme flimmert
von Dir in mich, von mir in Dich.

Die wird das fremde Kind verklären,
Du wirst es mir, von mir gebären;
Du hast den Glanz in mich gebracht,
Du hast mich selbst zum Kind gemacht."
Er faßt sie um die starken Hüften.
Ihr Atem küßt sich in den Lüften.
Zwei Menschen gehn durch hohe, helle Nacht.
Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood;
the moon keeps pace with them and draws their gaze.
The moon moves along above tall oak trees,
there is no wisp of cloud to obscure the radiance
to which the black, jagged tips reach up.
A woman's voice speaks:

"I am carrying a child, and not by you.
I am walking here with you in a state of sin.
I have offended grievously against myself.
I despaired of happiness,
and yet I still felt a grievous longing
for life's fullness, for a mother's joys
and duties; and so I sinned,
and so I yielded, shuddering, my sex
to the embrace of a stranger,
and even thought myself blessed.
Now life has taken its revenge,
and I have met you, met you."

She walks on, stumbling.
She looks up; the moon keeps pace.
Her dark gaze drowns in light.
A man's voice speaks:

"Do not let the child you have conceived
be a burden on your soul.
Look, how brightly the universe shines!
Splendour falls on everything around,
you are voyaging with me on a cold sea,
but there is the glow of an inner warmth
from you in me, from me in you.

That warmth will transfigure the stranger's child,
and you bear it me, begot by me.
You have transfused me with splendour,
you have made a child of me."
He puts an arm about her strong hips.
Their breath embraces in the air.
Two people walk on through the high, bright night.




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