When it received its premiere in 1902, the string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) was Schoenberg’s first work to attract attention, and controversy. It was programmatic chamber music, a single movement following the dramatic outline of a poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel, describing two lovers walking through a moonlit wood.
Dehmel was a fashionable and rather risque writer in turn-of-the-century Vienna, and other composers were drawn to his work, including Oskar Fried, who had been a pupil of Humperdinck, but who is better remembered now as a conductor (a champion of Mahler especially) than for his music. Two years after Schoenberg’s premiere, Fried made a setting of Verklärte Nacht for mezzo, tenor and orchestra. It is little known, but, preceded by the string-orchestra version of Schoenberg’s work, it got a rare British outing in Edward Gardner’s concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Christine Rice and Stuart Skelton as the soloists.
Fried’s 10-minute setting seemed to me a wonderful discovery, which manages to convey the emotional twists and turns of Dehmel’s text in a third of the time it takes Schoenberg. Brief arias for each of the protagonists alternate with duet sections, in a style that recalls both the intimacy of Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and the grand passions of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; it comes close to an operatic scena at times, and Rice and Skelton’s performance never stinted on dramatic impact.
The rest of the concert hardly strayed from that Viennese world. It ended with Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet, sounding fabulously idiomatic and assured in the BBCSO’s performance, even at the breathless speed that Gardner set for the finale. And it also included another rarity, a “symphonic poem” for tenor and orchestra by Franz Lehár, Fieber.
If the subject matter, the hallucinations of a dying soldier, is far away from the fluffy world of Lehár’s operettas, the music of Fieber doesn’t distance itself so convincingly. However, it’s undoubtedly a skilful stylistic mix, which at one point produces an unlikely hybrid of Berlioz and Johann Strauss as it merges the Rákóczi and Radetzky marches. The scoring for a large orchestra certainly sets the soloist heldentenor-like challenges, but Skelton took them in his stride.
• Andrew Clements did not attend this concert in person; his review is based on the Radio 3 broadcast, which is available on BBC Sounds.