The Arnold Schoenberg Center does not spring immediately to mind as the premier concert venue in Vienna, a city rife with music, but it has much to offer for the music connoisseur. Not only is it located just a stone’s throw from the Konzerthaus, edging on the city centre, but it’s pristinely live acoustics, thoughtful programming, and high quality make it a venue not to be overlooked. The Center offered a new cycle this season, called “Aus Nächster Nähe” (Up Close and Personal) in collaboration with the Radio Symphonie Orchester Wien (RSO). Chamber music constellations give talented orchestral players the opportunity to show their musicianship a bit more individually. The series has been a hit, evidenced not only by the full house at their final concert last evening, but by the renewal of the series next season.

<i>Die Musik</i> by Gustav Klimt © Wikicommons
Die Musik by Gustav Klimt
© Wikicommons

Violinists Franz-Markus Siegert and Anaїs Tamisier, violists Martin Edelmann and Raphael Handschuh, and cellists Julia Schreyvogel and Raffael Dolezal offered a gorgeous programme of Wagner, Strauss and Schoenberg and fragments in sextet arrangements, opening with an arrangement of the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde by Hugo Wolf Quartet violinist Sebastian Gürtler. From the fervent opening cello lines through all the many delicious unresolved proliferations of the infamous “Tristan chord”, this performance was so passionate that it felt almost voyeuristic to be listening so closely. At an absolutely sublime moment of stillness near the close, Dramaturg and moderator Nadja Kayali read Isolde’s Liebestod, contextualizing the work and adding a verbal dimension to the musical.

Text and music met again in the sextet which followed, the sextet used to usher in Capriccio, Strauss’ Conversation Piece for Music. In his operatic swansong, Strauss deals at length with a question that had occupied him for much of his life and career: the relative importance of words and music. After the recent run of Capriccio at the Staatsoper, it was wonderful to appreciate the sextet in a more intimate space. If Tristan is all lush, fecund greens and browns, Capriccio is shimmering gold. Fluttering, decadent lightness and beauty written in an incongruous time. Much of the Sextet sounds like conversations rising, co-existing, melting into one another; the lines of the violin dominating, then interplaying with the cello, over the agreement or seemingly unrelated murmurings of the others. If listening to the healthy buzz of conversation in a Viennese café could be heard in music, this is exactly what it would sound like.

The final numbers of the evening were dedicated to the center’s namesake. After a reading of Gustav Falke’s poem Toter Winkel, Schoenberg’s brief fragment of related programmatic music – his earliest venture into symphonic poem composition – was performed. Like the name would suggest, the mood is dark and bleak, but rife with expressive instrumental techniques including muted and unmuted strings playing simultaneously. Seamlessly on its heels, Kayali read Richard Dehmel’s poem of fear, admission and acceptance, Verklärte Nacht. Like the poem, Schoenberg’s early composition moves from anxiety and fear into peace, acceptance and, finally, transfiguration. The nearly omnipresent fluttering presence in the strings shifts from representing unrest, to the flicker of hope, to the glorious quickening of the unborn child being transformed from a shameful secret to a symbol of love as the lovers “gehn durch hohe, helle Nacht”.

The performance was magnificent – tender, impassioned and pure of intention. Although one would expect nothing less than excellent from RSO members whose bread and butter is late 19th- and 20th-century fare, it was nonetheless a beautiful experience to hear such an intimate set of works performed with such radiant ardour. It was indeed up close and personal, and a transfigured audience departed better off for it into an appropriately sultry June evening.