Four Germanic composers, for four works composed in the first two decades of the 20th century : this is the program of the Verklärte Nacht CD to be released on January 8 by Chandos. With such a title, one does not have to be very clever to guess that Schoenberg will be on the program. On the other hand, the rest of the programme should provide music lovers with some discoveries and revelations.
Let us start with the most famous piece, which only comes third place on the disc : Schoenberg's Transfigured Night. Regularly programmed by orchestras, this early work enjoys an unfailing success. In 1899, while he was still orchestrating operettas for a living, young Arnold (he was barely 25 years old) conceived in three weeks a work for string sextet, inspired by his love for the sister of his then counterpoint teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky. Verklärte Nacht had to wait until 1902 to be premiered, and caused controversy as much for its advanced harmonic language as for the text to which it owed its title, a poem by Richard Dehmel, taken from the collection Weib und Welt published in 1896. Condemned for obscenity and blasphemy, Dehmel presents sexuality outside marriage as an acceptable and forgivable reality. The poem encloses in a narrative framework the discourse of the Woman, then of the Man ; Schoenberg divided his Transfigured Night into five movements which can be considered as echoing the five stanzas in the text. This might appear as a transfiguration of the very concept of programme music, in a way, even though it might seem pointless to look for a direct correspondance between the words and the music when the score is more than sufficient in itself. On this recording, the arrangement for chamber orchestra is conducted by Edward Gardner, an arrangement made in 1917 and revised in 1943. With the musicians of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the sound remains ideally transparent, and the ardent feelings here expressed never disturb the skillful interweaving of its incisive lines.
Soon after Schoenberg finished his work in Vienna, the same poem was adapted much more literally by another composer, in Berlin : Oskar Fried (1871–1941), who made his career mainly as a conductor. In 1901, he composed his own Verklärte Nacht, a Lied for two voices and orchestra. The Woman is a mezzo, the Man a tenor, and the very Wagnerian result (less than ten minutes long) sounds much less aesthetically advanced than Schoenberg’s Night (which lasts almost half an hour). Nevertheless, one notes the interesting idea of having both voices sing simultaneously for the passages entrusted to the narrative voice, and listening to the Friedian Night is undoubtedly the best way to become familiar with Dehmel's text. Christine Rice, who seems to have only recently tackled Verdian roles on stage, shows that the evolution of her voice allows her to sing a heavier repertoire. The other protagonist is Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton, who is very much in demand everywhere for Siegmund, Tristan or Otello, and whose memorable interpretation of Peter Grimes was published by Chandos a few months ago.
Skelton is more particularly remarkable in Fieber, the opening piece in this programme, where he can more fully embody a character, or even several characters. This first work might also be the most surprising for the listener. The link with Transfigured Night is tenuous, perhaps, but clear, since the protagonist declares after a few bars : Wir fliegen leicht und wie verklärt dahin, "We fly, light and as if transfigured". Fieber is a rather stunning composition, especially considering that it dates from 1916 : in his delirium, a soldier wounded in battle calls a nurse, then mixes his memories of a ball with his fiancée and those of his life on the front. When he finally seems to find some peace, a spoken voice tells us that "the cadet occupying bed no. 8 is dead". The most astonishing thing is that this work is signed… Franz Lehár ! Between The Merry Widow (1905) and The Land of Smiles (1929), did the master of operetta dream of transfiguring himself through a completely different career ? One expects a revelation when one discovers that "Fieber" is in fact the fifth and last number in a collection entitled Aus eiserner Zeit ("From the Time of Iron"): are there four other lieder from the same barrel ? Not at all, alas, and the first four numbers are almost like little ditties, much more conventional, both in their text and in their music. Simply, in April 1915, moved by the news that his younger brother Anton was convalescing after being wounded in the war, Lehár apparently asked Erwin Weill to write him a text describing the sufferings of the combatants. From this Lied with piano, he very quickly drew a Tondichtung für Tenor und großes Orchester, which is quite staggering in the audacities that one would look for in vain in Frasquita or in The Count of Luxembourg, even if the whirlwind of the waltz here meets military marches, including Radetzsky's, so dear to the faithful audience of the New Year's Concert in Vienna. Edward Gardner rightly underlines the stridencies of the winds and the thundering brass bands in what almost sounds like a musical collage à la Luciano Berio.
Coming at the end of a rather dense program, the Lieder des Abschieds by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1920–21) might seem a little bland ; it may be better to listen to them separately to taste their refined writing, certainly infinitely less paroxysmal than the three other pieces on the disc. A poem by Christina Rossetti from 1848 (translated into German, but the accompanying libretto offers, as a supreme luxury, the original in addition to the English translation of the version set to music by Korngold), another by Viennese poet Edith Ronsperger, the last two having been commissioned by the composer from Ernst Lothar. The fourth is surprisingly reminiscent of the melodic phrase on which the soprano's intervention in Mahler's Fourth Symphony opens. Confronted with a less tense tessitura, Stuart Skelton can deploy a more immediate charm.