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Alban Berg: Lyric Suite
Arnold Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)
Jean-GuihenQueyras, cello & artistic direction; Ensemble Resonanz

Review By Joe Milicia

 

  Transfigured Night and the Lyric Suite make an excellent pairing — both being substantial works for strings that portray a love affair in elaborate detail, though the first conveys a secret longing by explicitly tracing a narrative poem and the second uses a complex set of musical encryptions. Arnold Schoenberg wrote Transfigured Night in 1899 for string sextet but in 1924 premiered an arrangement for string orchestra; Alban Berg, his onetime pupil, wrote the Lyric Suite in 1926-27 for string quartet and in 1929 made an arrangement of Movements 2, 3 and 4 (out of six) for string orchestra. Quite recently Dutch composer Theo Verbey, who had successfully orchestrated Berg's Piano Sonata (there's a Decca recording with Ricardo Chailly and the Concertgebouw), arranged the other movements of the Lyric Suite for the strings of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, and it is this hybrid arrangement (half Berg, half Verbey) that is played by the Ensemble Resonanz in a world-premiere recording.

The Ensemble Resonanz is a Hamburg-based chamber orchestra. Jean-Guihen Queyras is a distinguished young cellist, featured on quite a few Harmonia Mundi CDs, who was Artist in Residence with the Ensemble Resonanz 2010 to 2013. According to the CD booklet he was "long a soloist" with the Ensemble Intercontemporain and "profoundly influenced" by its director, Pierre Boulez, though he is too young to have participated in my favorite performance of the original sextet version of Transfigured Night, the 1985 CBS recording with Boulez leading members of his Ensemble. Queyras is given star billing on the new CD under the heading "cello & artistic direction," but the booklet notes don't give any more specific information, so I can only assume that he leads the Ensemble Resonanz from his chair as principal cellist. That has to be a formidable undertaking, even though the present recording features a chamber ensemble rather than a full string orchestra: 10 violins, 6 violas, 5 cellos, 1 string bass in the Schoenberg, 10 violins, 4 violas, 4 cellos, 2 string basses in the Berg. The results are impressive, and impressively well recorded, though I find the Schoenberg overall more satisfying than the Berg.

Schoenberg's chamber-music tone poem is still an astounding achievement, on the exact border between the most overripe late Romanticism (an outpouring of one gorgeously intense melody after another) and the onslaught of Modernism (breakdown of tonality, feverish leaning toward Expressionism). Biographers tell us that Schoenberg was privately expressing his feelings for the sister of fellow composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, Mathilda, whom he later married. As for the explicit source of inspiration—a poem by Richard Dehmel portraying a couple walking through a moonlit forest, the woman confessing she allowed a "stranger" to have sex with her so that she could conceive a child, and the man declaring his love for her and her unborn child — it is only 36 lines long, but the music goes through so many extreme emotional shifts in about 29 minutes that it's hard to make line-by-line connections. Still, it's easy enough to imagine how particular musical passages connect to the poem: e.g., the woman shudderingly submitting herself to the stranger's embrace; the shimmering of the light in the forest when the man declares his love; the final merging of the lovers' breaths visible in the cold moonlit air.

The Ensemble Resonanz's performance is less lush or emotionally heated than some with a larger string ensemble (e.g., Leopold Stokowski and "His" Symphony Orchestra on a mono RCA LP), but it's very fine all the same. The many memorable themes are strongly, clearly delineated; both anguish and tenderness are vividly depicted. Harmonia Mundi's recording is impressive, with extreme dynamic range, good stereo separation, and realistically delineated string colors.

When we turn to Berg's Lyric Suite, a quarter of a century later, we encounter a very different way of embedding secret desires into a piece of music. Musicologist-biographers in recent decades have described how Berg worked numeric and letter codes into the Lyric Suite (while adapting the 12-tone technique he learned from Schoenberg) to represent himself and Hanna Fuchs, the woman to whom he was passionately drawn. Furthermore, the piece, dedicated to Zemlinsky, quotes from the latter's Lyric Symphony for singers and orchestra: themes that in the Lyric Symphony accompany words like "You are my own, my own!" and "You, who live in my endless dreams." If that weren't enough, the final Largo desolato quotes from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde and contains a musical phrase meant to fit some words from a Baudelaire poem. One might think that such an extremely thought-out scheme would lead to dryly academic music, but the result is everything that Berg's tempo markings call for: a jovial Allegretto, amorous Andante, mysterious Allegro with an ecstatic Trio, passionate Adagio, delirious Presto and desolate Largo.

While Transfigured Night is rewarding to hear played by a chamber-sized string orchestra, I'm not so sure about Berg's Lyric Suite. The piece certainly works as a string quartet: just listen, for example, to any of the Julliard Quartet's three versions, including the 1950 Columbia LP currently accessible on YouTube. And Berg's arrangement of Movements 2-4 can be very powerful when a big ensemble plunges into it. But I found portions of the Ensemble Resonanz' performance lacking in intensity: I can't say whether the problem is the size of the group (where either bigger or smaller would be "just right") or the difficulty of leading it from the cello section. The issue is not togetherness of ensemble but commitment to Berg's characterizations of each movement. The Andante amoroso in particular is slack in tension, even in its sweeping waltz passages (the kind that are so thrilling in many of Berg's works).  And the Allegro misterioso — a twitchy, near-hysterical movement with its spiccato and ponticello effects — is tame. However, the Ensemble seems to wake up in the subsequent movements: the Allegro is truly appassionato, and they launch into the Presto delirando with terrifying force. Again the sound is impeccable, though here I would have liked a more up-close attention to the "colors" of the strings.

Harmonia Mundi's detailed booklet essay by Sylvain Fort provides an interesting discussion of the various ways that Berg and Schoenberg incorporated their private yearnings into music for the public. But English-readers are a bit cheated: only the French and German portions of the booklet include lengthy quotations of two letters that Berg wrote to Hannah Fuchs. At least the well-chosen cover, featuring a Gustav Klimt red-haired woman half-hidden by her dark feathered hat and boa, is there for all to see.

 

 

Performance: Schoenberg  

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