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Monday, March 14, 2011

Comparitive Listening: Verklärte Nacht

Self-portrait of Arnold Schoenberg
Arnold Schoenberg's 30-minute tone poem Verklärte Nacht was the work that first cemented his reputation as an up-and-coming composer in fin-de-siecle Vienna. Yet it is a misunderstood work, mostly because the name Schoenberg has become associated in the popular culture with his later discoveries in the realms of atonal and twelve-tone music.

This is a great example of the composer's early style, where the orchestral and harmonic ideas associated with Richard Wagner receive a full exploration over the course of a half hour. Verklärte Nacht (the title means "Transfigured Night") is heady, intoxicating music for strings. It is love-music, and was inspired by Schoenberg's first encounter with Mathilda von Zemlinsky. Eventually, he married her.

The work is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel
and as such, has a plot. A man and a woman, lovers, are walking in the woods. The woman reveals to the man that she is pregnant, and that he is not the father. Schoenberg explores shifting chromaticism and dissonance, working inexorably to the final resoluton, when the man forgives the woman and they walk on into the night.

Self-portrait of Arnold Schoenberg
The Contenders:
Berlin Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (DG)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester cond. Riccardo Chailly (Decca, 1987)
Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG, 1995)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe cond. Heinz Holliger (Teldec/Apex 2002)
Glass Chamber Players (Orange Mountain Music, 2010)

This week's CL features five recordings of the piece. One
features the original chamber music version, scored for two violins, two violas and two cellos. This is an excellent 2009 recording of the chamber version of the work, allowing the listener to hear the interplay of Schoenberg's melodic lines.

The other four are of Schoenberg's 1943 revision of the work for chamber orchestra. This is the most commonly heard version of Verklärte Nacht.

Self-portrait of Arnold Schoenberg
These orchestral versions were recorded for major labels, when conductors had free rein over their repertory and record companies spent gobs of money on sessions. Giuseppe Sinopoli takes the slowest tempos by far on his London recording, made in 1992 and released three years later. He travels through the woods at a careful pace, pausing to stretch out the key phrases. His performance of the opening movement is nearly a minute longer than his rivals.

Herbert von Karajan' Berlin Philharmonic recording sounds cavernous and hollow, in an over-resonant acoustic that the DG tonmeisters did little to correct in the remastering process. This is one of the few recordings that Karajan made of music of the so-called Second Viennese School, and he sounds vaguely ill at ease in this music.

The Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly leads the Berlin Radio Orchestra, the excellent, if slightly less famous band from further down the River Spree. Chailly recorded this as a follow-up to his excellent Gurrelieder. It is a sterling version in digital sound. Finally, the famed oboist Heinz Holliger leads the excellent Chamber Orchestra of Europe in a warm reading that emphasizes the romantic qualities of the score.

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