If one ever wants reassurance about the value of the BBC, then listen to this exceptional BBCSO concert on the Radio 3 catch-up service [link below] and be duly thankful. Two versions of an ecstatic love poem, an extraordinary orchestral expansion of a chamber work, and a haunting rarity from the composer of The Merry Widow, all four pieces stoking the fires of late romanticism to white-hot.
The German poet Richard Dehmel was tried for blasphemy and obscenity when his book of poems that included Verklärte Nacht was published in 1896. Schoenberg’s instrumental interpretation gets straight to the point of the love poem’s transcendence of immorality, anxiety and guilt, and it’s probably fair to say that the string orchestra version (here the composer’s second re-scoring made in Los Angeles in 1943) may have encouraged a wider audience, but performances can unpick the unstoppable volatility of the 1899 string sextet original. Not here, though, in the BBCSO strings’ blistering playing, shaped to expressive extremes by Edward Gardner, who had no problem fitting the music to Dehmel’s text. The BBCSO has been on magnificent form this season but here they surpassed themselves in delivering the music’s hysteria and tenderness. Dehmel’s moonlit forest imagery and rampant passion were reflected in expressionist half-lights, precisely geared harmonics and flickering pizzicato effects. Then, at full tilt, the volume from the sixty players was overwhelming, but they also had an ebb-and-flow ensemble that would have given a chamber ensemble pause for thought, exposing the power of Schoenberg’s contrapuntal and melodic genius – he could certainly write a tune.
Oskar Fried’s vocal setting, with full orchestra, of Dehmel’s poem, followed two years later, in 1901, and obviously adheres more to the poem’s specifics of the man’s transfiguring love for a woman pregnant by another man. As a conductor, Fried made the first recordings of Mahler and Richard Strauss, and as a composer was in at the deep end of late romanticism. His overtly operatic setting may not linger on Dehmel’s psychological nuance, but his harmonically direct score surges to an imposing resolution, with Christine Rice emerging from hesitancy to radiance and Stuart Skelton surfing the large orchestra with Heldentenor generosity, the two joining forces for an ecstatic duet.
The Fried was rare and a discovery. I wasn’t so convinced by Lehár’s Fieber (Fever), but it was rare and strange – and tragic, because the poet Erwin Weill, who wrote the text, met his end in a Nazi camp. A young, badly wounded soldier lies hallucinating in bed as he dies, memories of his short life flashing by him. The last line is ‘Doctor, the cadet in bed eight is dead.’ With Mahlerian aspiration, quotes from Johann Strauss and Hector Berlioz, stirring military music, and slithering chromaticism, the 14-minute score sounds like a compendium of late-romantic style, which the BBCSO went for with a will, and it needed their and Skelton’s considerable powers of persuasion to make the piece stand up. It also required even more vocal magnificence from Skelton than in the Fried to square up to the unsparing orchestral bulk.
Some people refer to Schoenberg’s mighty orchestration (1937) of Brahms’s only slightly-less mighty First Piano Quartet as the latter’s Symphony No.5, although properly, I suppose, it should be referred to as Brahms’s Symphony No.0. It’s a strange homage, eighty years after the original, and one can speculate pleasurably on the composer’s reaction to the arranger’s inclusion of xylophone and a bit of triangle ting-a-ling. Again, it was a late-romantic sound-compendium, swerving from Tchaikovsky, to Liszt and on to Shostakovich, and Gardner’s consistently stylish, bright, forward reading released an abundance of detail that might well get obliterated by Brahms’s colossal piano writing. A special delight was the gipsy Rondo finale, taken at a speed that made the Presto direction seem sluggish, and folding in a clarinet cadenza that boiled over into Rhapsody in Blue (Gershwin and Schoenberg played tennis together).
- Concert broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and available for thirty days thereafter on BBC Sounds, click here