Tuesday, 8 May 2018

It's not Britsh but...Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Busoni (Association for Private Musical Performances)

In 1918, Arnold Schoenberg and several colleagues, founded the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen
(Association for Private Musical Performances). This organisation, born in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, was a bold and largely successful attempt to enable composers to gain well-rehearsed performances of works that may otherwise have gone unheard. In many cases they produced arrangements of each other’s music to meet budget limitations.
Grove Music Online (entry for ‘Schoenberg’) notes that ‘between February 1919 and the end of 1921, when inflation put an end to the society’s activities, 353 performances of 154 works were given in 117 concerts.’ It was a sterling achievement.
A good example of this scale of economy is the opening work by Arnold Schoenberg: the Kammersymphonie, op.9. The Society was unable to afford the cost of hiring 15 players to present this work in its original ‘chamber’ form. So, Anton Webern rescored it for a smaller ensemble: flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The Kammersymphonie was originally composed in 1906: as noted, it was devised for 15 solo instruments and conductor. In 1923 Schoenberg arranged it for full orchestra. It was further revised in the United States during 1935.
I have always enjoyed Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie in its orchestral adaptation. I think that it is a splendid entry point to the complex and challenging music of the composer. 
Arguments can, and have been made, suggesting that Webern’s transcription for five soloists is more a re-presentation of the work rather than simply an arrangement. However, I enjoyed this ‘reduction’ and realise that, much as I appreciate the original, the clarity of texture and basic atmosphere of the work is apparent in Webern’s version. The performance by the Linos Ensemble is satisfying at every bar.
Finally, it is possible to spend time analysing the Wagnerian/Tristanesque element of this work, and to ponder the nods towards Schoenberg’s later atonality. Robert Craft once wisely advised that listeners concentrate on the Kammersymphonie as it exists, and not attempt to muse about ‘where the composer once was and where he is going.’

Alexander Zemlinsky Sechs Gesänge were originally composed between 1910 and 1913 as songs for soloist and piano. They are based on texts from the Symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck’s (1862-1949) book Fifteen Songs (1906). Sechs Gesänge follow a trajectory between the rich Romantic sound of Richard Wagner and the emerging modernism of Arnold Schoenberg. If anything, these gorgeous songs lie nearer to Wagner’s Wesendonk Lieder and the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. They are generally regarded as being one of the composer’s masterpieces.  The themes of the poems are the premonition of death and, surprisingly, a longing for death.  Zemlinsky orchestrated these songs in 1924.
The chamber version devised by Erwin Stein and Andreas Tarkmann recorded on this CD is excellent. It may not have the lushness and interest of the orchestral incarnation which is probably best-known. This is made up for by the lucidity of the parts in the accompaniment and their detailed interaction with the soloist.
I was seriously impressed with the wonderful singing by mezzo-soprano Zoryana Kushpler.

I do prefer the orchestral version of Ferruccio Busoni’s melancholic Berceuse Élégiaque op.42 which was composed in 1909 based on a piano piece from two years earlier. That said, Erwin Stein’s reworking of this music for the limited forces of a chamber ensemble, including piano and harmonium is typically effective.
Busoni encountered considerable personal tragedy around this time, losing both his mother and his father. The ‘programme’ for this heart-breakingly beautiful work is of ‘a man’s lullaby at his mother’s coffin.’ I confess that I put this image out of my mind when listening to this piece.  
I find that Stein’s reworking is just a little bit harsh on the ear: it does not always have the quiet sustained magic of the orchestral version (or the original piano piece). This is especially so with the penetrating woodwind (on this recording) sometimes providing a discordant note.
The premiere of the orchestral Berceuse was given in New York on 21 February 1911, with Gustav Mahler conducting the New York Philharmonic. I understand that it was the final concert that he conducted before his death.

I was a little disappointed at the parsimonious duration of this CD. At 47 minutes it does suggest that the Linos ensemble could have found another number or two from the 154-works presented at the Association for Private Musical Performances concerts. 
The liner notes, by Christian Heindl, are comprehensive and are presented in German and English. It would have been good to have included translations of Maeterlinck’s poems. Helpful details are provided about Zoryana Kushpler and the ensemble.

All in all, this is an impressive project. If I am honest, I will not be swayed away from the orchestral versions of these pieces. On the other hand, this an important historical document which present arrangements of works that were made for a social and economic reason: the possibility of performance. Over and above this, as already noted, the reduced forces of the chamber ensemble can reveal details and bring clarity to the music that is denied to the denser originals.

Track Listings:
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951) Kammersymphonie, no.1, op.9 (arranged for chamber orchestra by Anton WEBERN (1883-1945) (1906/1923)
Alexander ZEMLINSKY (1871-1942) Sechs Gesänge, op.13 ‘Maeterlinck-Gesänge’ (arranged for voice and chamber ensemble by Erwin STEIN (1885-1958) nos. 2&5 (1910-14/1921); Andreas TARKMANN (b.1956) nos.1, 3, 4 & 6) 1910-14/?)
Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924) Berceuse Élégiaque, op.42 (arranged for chamber ensemble by Erwin STEIN) (1909/1921)
Zoryana Kushpler (mezzo-soprano); Linos Ensemble
Rec. Deutschlandfunk Köln, Kammermusiksaal October 2011
CAPRICCIO C5138 [47:50]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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