A concert of early music – at least by London Sinfonietta standards. The ever-flexible new music ensemble this evening presented a selection of Schoenberg’s fin de siècle works as part of a Kings Place mini-series entitled Vienna Revisited. The aim here is to contextualise the innovations of the Second Viennese School in the 19th century culture from which they grew. The performances this evening were good, but they didn’t come close to fulfilling that aim. Instead, the younger Schoenberg was presented as a serialist in waiting. Each work was presented with an austere Modernist objectivity, clarity of texture always trumping atmosphere or emotion.

Sarah Connolly © Peter Warren
Sarah Connolly
© Peter Warren

Verklärte Nacht, played here in the sextet version, is a work of extremes, and that’s exactly how it was presented. The depiction of the nocturnal forest at the opening was achieved with the quietest of dynamics and a complete absence of vibrato. As the work progressed, things warmed up, with a rapid increase in pace and volume. The players worked more as individuals than as a group, and the precision of their playing (bar one or two intonation slips), combined with the clarity of the Kings Hall acoustic, meant that all the counterpoint was well served. The more homogeneous climaxes were harder on the ear, with extreme dynamics and little warmth to the sound. But then, this isn’t easy listening, and the conviction and drama of the performance were often compelling.

Schoenberg’s chamber version of the “Song of the Wood Dove” from Gurrelieder brought us more explicitly into the ambiance of his Society for Private Musical Performances. The chamber arrangements of orchestral works by Schoenberg and his colleagues have enjoyed some popularity in recent years, but the reasons for performing them are not always clear. They were never intended to surpass the originals, and were only created out of a necessity that, arguably, no longer exists. So it seems perverse to highlight the differences between the arrangements and their models. That said, this performance did exactly that, and was all the more interesting for it. The harmonium, introduced only to fill out the reduced wind textures, was positioned near the front of the stage, and its distinctive timbre was never far from the surface. Schoenberg’s bass-heavy ensemble does a good job of representing the gravity of the orchestral sound. Cellist Tim Gill and bassist Enno Senft made particularly valuable contributions in this regard (Gill’s solos in Verklärte Nacht were also excellent, and more passionate than most of what we heard there). But the success of Schoenberg’s arrangement, and of this performance of it, can be gauged in the way the ensemble supported the singer, mezzo Sarah Connolly. She gave a full-blooded performance, the kind you would expect to hear with full orchestral accompaniment, and yet the balance never suffered, and the ensemble was able to provide all the drama required. Connolly sang well, a committed, vocally arresting rendition. Her tone gave way on a few of the higher notes, but only very briefly.

Conductor Nicholas Collon concluded the programme with a bracing rendition of the First Chamber Symphony. Tempos were generally fast, and often sped up to excitable climaxes, but this too was a performance all about detail and clarity of texture. The strings were able to provide that more than the winds as it turned out, and the focus from the front row was occasionally at odds with the murkier textures from further back. But the sheer energy of the performance, and the clear, unfussy interpretive style, were enough to ensure that innovation of this music was always apparent. The musicality, too, of Schoenberg’s groundbreaking ideas, was fully expressed. Other interpreters have succeeded better in linking this work into the soundworld of Brahms. Despite that expressed aim, this performance took the music in a different direction, but was none the worse for it.