Schoenberg: Verklarte Nacht (SACD review)

Also, Lehar: Fieber; Fried: Verklarte Nacht; Korngold: Lieder des Abschieds. Christine Rice, mezzo-soprano; Stuart Skelton, tenor; Edward Gardner, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Chandos CHSA 5243.

By John J. Puccio

“Two people walk through a leafless frosty copse,
the moon tags along and draws their gaze.
...
He grasps her about her strong hips.
Their breath is mingling in the air.
Two people walk through a brightly shining night.”

--Richard Dehmel, “Transfigured Night,”

Those are the opening and closing lines of the poem “Verklarte Nach” by German poet and writer Richard Dehmel (1863-1920). Dehmel’s poems inspired such composers as such as Richard Strauss, Max Reger, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Oskar Fried, Alma Mahler, Anton Webern, Ignatz Waghalter, Carl Orff, and Kurt Weill to set them to music. On the present album we have four composers whom Dehmel inspired in one way or another: Arnold Schoenberg, Oskar Fried, Franz Lehar, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Maestro Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra do the honors, with tenor Stuart Skelton lending his voice to Lehar’s Fieber and both Skelton and mezzo-soprano Christine Rice singing in Fried’s Verklarte Nacht.

First up on the program is Fieber (“Fever,” 1915), a short piece by Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehar (1870-1948). Although Lehar was a contemporary of Schoenberg, his music is more associated with that of operetta, and the link between him and Dehmel’s poem is tenuous at best. Lehar’s tone poem (as he called it) is a musical tribute to his younger brother who lay in hospital at the time from wounds received in the early going of the First World War. Lehar set the words of poet Erwin Weill to music, and they do bear resemblance in tone to Dehmel’s poem. The music is very dramatic, perhaps even melodramatic, and between bouts of seriousness, it also betrays Lehar’s light-opera leanings. Tenor Stuart Skelton sings it well, and Gardner and the orchestra accompany him unobtrusively.

Next up is Verklarte Nacht (“Transfigured Night,” 1901), another short work, this one by German conductor and composer Oskar Fried (1871-1941). Although Schoenberg wrote his musical setting for Dehmel’s poem a couple of years earlier, he didn’t see it performed until 1902, a full year after Fried’s operatic, vocal-instrumental version appeared. Fried’s piece is pretty much a musical setting of the whole Dehmel poem, where tenor Skelton is joined by soprano Christine Rice. I found it rather forgettable, but listeners more attuned to opera than I am may enjoy its sentiment. There is no question that everyone involved performs it well.

Then we get the centerpiece of the album, Verklarte Nacht by Austrian-born composer, writer, and painter Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). He originally wrote it for string sextet but arranged a string orchestra version in 1917, which we have here. The work is pretty well known, and one can find it recorded by practically every major conductor in the world. Later in life, Schoenberg would credit not only Dehmel’s poem for his inspiration but Brahms and Mahler as well. Interestingly, both the poem and Schoenberg’s music were condemned back in the day for their frank sexuality. Maybe that’s why they became so famous. In any case, Gardner provides us with a notably expressive presentation of the score. While his reading is not so glamorized or Romanticized as Karajan’s nor so incisive as Stokowski’s--older recordings that easily come to mind--it gets to the heart of the music’s passion and turmoil in perhaps more concise terms. Of course, it’s hard to match the sheer sensuality of the Berlin strings. Still, Gardner well captures the extremes of sadness, reflection, and forgiveness expressed in the poem, and without exaggeration. It’s true that a few listeners may miss some of Schoenberg’s lush harmonies here, which tend to get a little lost in the unfolding of the story, but Gardner makes up for it with the lucidity of his musical storytelling.

The final work on the agenda is Lieder des Abschieds (“Songs of Farewell,” 1920-21) by Austrian-born composer and conductor Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). Korngold may be better recognized today for his film scores (Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, The Adventures of Robin Hood) but he wrote a large body of serious classical music as well, including these four vocal settings for tenor and orchestra. Again the connection to Dehmel’s poem is slender at best, but inside the booklet notes we find the heading “German Orchestral Songs/Verklate Nacht” so maybe that explains it. Whatever, tenor Stuart Skelton and Maestro’s Gardner manage to convey a lovely, poignant mood in the piece, with the orchestra keeping a safe distance in the more sensitive and affecting parts.

Producer Brian Pidgeon and engineer Ralph Couzens recorded the music at Phoenix Concert Hall, Fairfield Halls, Croydon, England in March 2020. They made it for hybrid SACD; that is, playback in 2-channel stereo via a regular CD player and 2-channel and multichannel via an SACD player. I listened in 2-channel SACD.

Clearly, what Chandos Records were going for here was as natural a sound as possible, with no bright edginess accompanying any sort pretense to audiophile clarity. Yet, the sound is quite clear and natural, so I’d say they succeeded, even though some listeners not used to such things may think it’s too soft for their taste. The sound is also moderately dynamic, evident from the low initial volume. Trust me: It gets plenty loud enough as it goes along, the dynamic range being relatively wide. There is also good orchestral depth and a broad and well-balanced frequency response.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

2 comments:

  1. Unfortunately, the booklet note author fails to point out that Korngold was actually related to Richard Dehmel by marriage, Dehmel's daughter Ilse married Korngold's brother-in-law, Paul von Sonnenthal. Korngold knew Dehmel and his whole family and moved in his circle. He also knew his poetry extremely well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Brendan. That helps to explain more than I could find out.

      Delete

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa