Tension, reconciliation, and resignation – these three words turned through my head this evening as the Wiener Virtuosen and soloists Klaus Florian Vogt and Thomas Hampson took on Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

Klaus Florian Vogt © Uwe Arens | Sony Classical
Klaus Florian Vogt
© Uwe Arens | Sony Classical

Mahler and Schonberg were undoubtedly two of the mightiest compositional forces straining at the edges of tonality in the early 20th century. Both were struggling in their own rights at the time they were writing these works, Mahler on a personal level following the death of his 5 year old daughter, Maria Anna, in July of 1907 and, professionally, having left his post at the State Opera after a ten year tenure in March of the same year. He was also fighting the superstition of composing the dreaded (deadly) 10th Symphony, which to this day carries a certain foreboding. Schoenberg was already struggling to find his own unique musical voice. Although still very much tonal – this early work was conceived in 1899 and premiered at the Musikverein in 1902, long before his “emancipation of the dissonance” in the 20s – nonetheless the piece is highly chromatic and harmonically progressive. It was rejected by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde because of its use of the “non-existent” (i.e. non-categorized) inverted ninth chord. Both composers found musical inspiration through poetry, and the fruit of their efforts yielded two of the most fascinating pieces of music in the canon.

Verklärte Nacht is a one-movement program piece which can be subdivided into five sections. It was scored for string sextet, and realized spectacularly by the Wiener Virtuosen. This flexible troupe, founded by Ernst Ottensamer, is comprised primarily of members of the Vienna Philharmonic and guests – combining brilliant technical chops with wonderful ensemble. It is programmatic in nature, and the poem which inspired it was written by the Richard Dehmel out of his collection Weib und Welt (Woman and World). In it, we find a man and woman walking together through a “kahlen, kalten Hain” (bare, cold grove). The woman reveals to the man, with difficulty, that she is carrying the child of another. After a reflective pause, the man speaks and tells her that the child is full of light, and that its radiance permeates everything. He accepts her and the child as his own and the two embrace and walk through the “hohe, helle Nacht” (high, bright night). The struggle, emotionally, of the two protagonists is reflected in true romantic style not only through the language and descriptions of the settings around them, but through the musical language Schoenberg employs. One of the most beautiful moments comes at the point where the man says “see how the world around shimmers” – the muted strings make the world shimmer and flutter, and the sweet sound of the violin enters as the embodiment of hope and life growing inside the woman.

Das Lied von der Erde was originally scored and premiered for the piano and two voices, but as every Lied pianist is aware, Mahler always thought orchestrally when writing, and it is a shame to hear a work like this without orchestral scoring. This realization, for an ensemble around 16 deep, was actually completed by Arnold Schönberg and Rainer Riehn in the 1920s after Mahler’s death. It is organized in six movements with the tenor and alto (baritone in this case) alternating movements, and based on a collection of Chinese poems in German translatons by Hans Bethge. The collection was published in 1907 under the title Die chinesiche Flöte (The Chinese Flute). Tenor Karl Florian Vogt sang “Das Trinklied vom Jemmer der Erde” with robust, horn-like swagger, then lent his bright spinning sound and legato to the upbeat “Von der Jugend” against a myriad of trills and dance themes, and impressed with brilliant of sound in “Der Trunkene im Frühling”. Baritone Thomas Hampson had the more introspective numbers to tend to. Against the backdrop of hopeless violin oscillations in “Der Einsame im Herbst” he vocally mourned, employing a slender, haunting vocal timbre. The form of the “schönste von den Jungfrau’n” was painted vocally and musically in “Von der Schönheit”. Though I personally find it musically and artistically advantageous to have an alto singing these songs, the alternation of baritone was condoned by Mahler, and there was enough variety between the color of both male voices to be effective. The relentlessly lengthy finale, “Der Abschied”, was masterfully delivered. Between the plaintive opening oboe solo against bass and cello, musical sighing motifs of waves and wind, and the recurring funeral march colored by gong, low winds and strings, Hampson sent us pensively out into the night, singing his goodbyes and of his heart’s search for peace.  

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