Wednesday 15 July 2020

Vienna 1910: the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien in sophisticated and vibrant accounts of works by Mahler, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss

Mahler Adagio - Symphony No. 10, Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No.1, Strauss Der Rosenkavalier: Suite; Alban Berg Ensemble Wien; Deutsche Grammophon
Mahler Adagio - Symphony No. 10, Schoenberg Chamber Symphony No.1, Strauss Der Rosenkavalier: Suite; Alban Berg Ensemble Wien; Deutsche Grammophon

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 July 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Three contrasting works from Vienna just before the First World War in chamber versions which bring out both the contrasts and the commonalities between these works, in sophisticated and vibrant performances

The decade before the First World War can often be portrayed as some sort of Golden Age, Stefan Zweig portrayed it as such in his memoir The World of Yesterday, written however whilst he was in exile in America during the Second World War. And historian Barbara Tuchman, having written a book exploring the first month of the First World War, The Guns of August (published in 1962), proceeded to write another book The Proud Tower (published in 1966) to explore exactly that, looking the fractured era from 1890 to 1914 to find out whether it was such a golden age via topics as diverse as the Dreyfuss Affair, anarchism, German art and culture, and socialism.

Musically, the split between the culture of a later age and an earlier one can be seen to be marked by two fracas, both taking place in 1913. In March 1913, Arnold Schoenberg conducted a concert given by the Vienna Music Society in the Musikverein, Vienna, of Anton Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, Alexander von Zemlinsky's Four Orchestral Songs on poems by Maeterlinck, Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1, and two of Alban Berg's Altenberg lieder. The audience began rioting and the concert concluded prematurely. And two months later, in Paris, the audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées famously rioted at the premiere of the ballet The Rite of Spring, perhaps objecting to Igor Stravinsky's music, perhaps to Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography.

Yet, neither of these events is quite as clear cut as might be seen. Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 had been successfully premiered in Vienna in 1907, and the premiere of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, conducted by Franz Schreker, at the Musikverein in Vienna in February 1913 had been a huge success but the composer refused to acknowledge the applause, offended by the attitude of previous conservative audiences. And the reaction at the March 1913 concert was to a certain extent in retribution! Similarly, there have been suggestions that the extreme reaction in Paris was engineered for publicity, and certainly Diaghilev's company went on to give five performances of the ballet in Paris and four in London. It was in fact the events of the First World War which conspired to cause the ballet to be dropped and by the time the company came to revive it in the 1920s, Nijinsky's choreography had been forgotten and it was re-worked by Leonid Massine.

Alban Berg Ensemble Wien (Photo Andrej Grilc)
Alban Berg Ensemble Wien (Photo Andrej Grilc)
Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 is a work which looks both backwards and forwards, giving a prescient hint of the composer's later styles but also linking through to the work of his predecessors. It is the work where Schoenberg first started to part company from the late Romantic musical world of late-Wagner, and move on towards 12 tone music and serialism.

On this new disc (released 17 July 2020) from the Deutsche Grammophon, the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien has assembled three works from this period, the Adagio from Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 10 and Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier Suite, Op. 59, both written in 1910, and Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No 1 from 1907.

All three works look both backwards and forwards, and each in a different way reflects the tension between modernism and tradition which is exemplified by the era. It helps that on this disc all four are heard in versions for chamber ensemble. And here we come to another interesting thread from tradition to modernism. In 1912, Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire was premiered in Berlin. Schoenberg had originally been commissioned to write a melodrama (a form popular at the time) by an actress who liked reciting to music. He pushed the form by notating the spoken line as sprechstimme, and he wrote the accompaniment for an ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The composers Igor Stravinsky and Edgar Varese were present at that first performance, and would report back to composers in Paris. The result was a concert in Paris in 1914 which had music by Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, and Maurice Delage all for a similar line up. The Pierrot Ensemble would become one of the defining instrumental line-ups of the later 20th century.

In the 1920s Anton Webern arranged Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 (which was originally written for a larger scale mixed wind and string ensemble) for just this line-up, and this was intended to be played alongside Pierrot Lunaire. For this disc, Martyn Harry has arranged Mahler's 'Adagio' for flute, clarinet, string quartet and piano (Pierrot Ensemble plus another violin), and Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier Suite for flute, clarinet, oboe, string quartet, double bass and piano (Pierrot Ensemble plus oboe, double bass and another violin) with the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien being joined by oboist Nora Cismondi and double bass player Alois Posch.

The fascinating thing about hearing Mahler's Adagio brilliantly boiled down to just seven instruments is that the clarity brings out Mahler's daring and modernism. Whilst Mahler, in his symphonies, was wrestling with the legacy of Beethoven he was also looking forward, and in his tenth symphony his own disastrous personal life makes a significant contribution. His wife had had an affair with the architect Walter Gropius and Mahler had sought counselling with Sigmund Freud and his despair constantly seeps its way into the work. Without the luxuriousness of Mahler's orchestration, we can appreciate the remarkable underpinning of this structure.

I loved the way that the piece is opened with a portamento from the violin, making a definite statement about the sound-world we are entering. This is warm, vibrant playing, full of intense colours yet each instrumentalist interacting brilliantly and this version works as chamber music, not as a symphony boiled down, creating an intense experience.

And similarly, listening to the Schoenberg after Mahler's work, we can hear how Mahler came to support the younger composer (even after Mahler had ceased to find Schoenberg's work comprehensible). The Chamber Symphony can be analysed in terms of traditional form, yet Schoenberg pushes harmony forward as well. The reduction by Webern is given a crystalline sense of clarity by the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien. The vibrancy in their playing, and the sophisticated sense of ensemble mean that we forget this is a chamber version, and the technical ease with which they play the music means we really can hear the links backward to Mahler, as well as the sense of Schoenberg pushing forward. Though in a single movement, the work has a clear structure, but the performance here is so gripping that you forget that and allow yourself to be drawn along, and they make the work's conclusion positively orgiastic, an adjective I do not usually associate with Schoenberg's music!

With Richard Strauss' suite from Der Rosenkavalier the chamber version enables us to see, in a different light, the way Strauss kept much of the advanced sophistication of his two previous operas, Salome and Elektra, whilst bringing in a deceptive melodic lyricism; again a work facing two different ways.

With its gorgeous melodies, it is tempting to see this work as the 'bon bouche' of the disc, but there is much that is not frothy about the work, and we can appreciate the sophistication and contemporary feel of the textures as Strauss manipulates his material. The tunes might be great fun, and certainly a world away from Schoenberg's music of the period, yet listening to this arrangement, without the surface gloss of the large orchestra and dazzling voices, we can hear the commonalities too. Hearing that trio boiled down to a chamber piece is revelatory, especially in performances as beautiful and as intelligent as this.

The Alban Berg Ensemble Wien was formed when the members of of Hugo Wolf Quartet (Sebastian Gurtler, Regis Bringolf, Subin Lee, Florian Berner) joined forces with Ariane Haering (piano), Silvia Careddu (flute), and Alexander Neubauer (piano).

What is remarkable about these performances is that the ensemble both brings out the differences in the three works, yet also allows us to see the commonalities. Technically these accounts of the music are all superb, but the ensemble goes well beyond that and plays with a sophistication and vibrancy which is all their own.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), arr. Martyn Harry - Adagio from Symphony No. 10 (1910) [23:58]
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), arr Anton Webern - Chamber Symphony No. 1 Op. 9 (1907) [21:12]
Richard Strauss (1864-1949), arr. Martyn Harry - Der Rosenkavalier: Suite Op. 59 (1910) [22:11]
Alban Berg Ensemble Wien (Sebastian Gurtler, Regis Bringolf violins, Subin Lee viola, Florian Berner cello, Silvia Careddu flute, Alexander Neubauer clarinet, Airane Haering piano)
Nora Cismondi (oboe)
Alois Posch (double bass)
Recorded September 2019, Loreley-Saal, Vienna
Released 17 July 2020

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