By John J. Puccio
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.
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.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: