Verklärte Nacht review – poetic journeys between dark and light

Skelton/Rice/BBCSO/Gardner
(Chandos)
Edward Gardner finds sumptuous intensity in Schoenberg’s drama, alongside a lesser-known version by Fried and dramatic songs to frame an intriguing collection

More than one piece of headily romantic music was inspired by Richard Dehmel’s 1896 poem Verklärte Nacht, or Transfigured Night. The most familiar remains Schoenberg’s string masterpiece, first conceived as a sextet in 1899, reworked for string orchestra nearly two decades later and rarely very far from its composer’s mind for the rest of his life. This, in its orchestral version, is the pivotal piece on this recording, and it finds Edward Gardner drawing playing of sumptuous intensity but also ravishing delicacy from the strings of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, recorded in the studio days before the first lockdown.

But it’s the rest of the repertoire that makes this disc especially interesting. Another composer inspired by Verklärte Nacht was Oskar Fried, who set the words as a glowingly Romantic tone poem for mezzo-soprano, tenor and orchestra. Fried captures the poem’s theme of transcendence in music that blooms from darkness into light, finally framing the tenor soloist as a kind of Wagnerian hero – to which Stuart Skelton rises gloriously, while Christine Rice brings mellow richness to the mezzo’s music.

Gardner always seems to bring out the best in Skelton, who is similarly in his element in Korngold’s four Songs of Farewell, the first of which especially seems to anticipate Strauss’s Four Last Songs, written nearly three decades later. And what about Fieber, the powerful scene for tenor and orchestra that opens the disc – which composer can this be, painting the dying soldier’s fevered hallucinations in such vivid colours? Perhaps the whirling waltz of his ballroom dreams might be a clue: it’s Franz Lehár, known as the master of light opera but clearly very much at home making stirring musical drama out of a very serious subject indeed. It sets the tone for a disc of discoveries that put Schoenberg’s work in intriguing context.

This week’s other pick

This recording also has Vienna as a centre of gravity: a song recital by the rising baritone James Newby and pianist Joseph Middleton centred around Beethoven’s cycle An die ferne Geliebte and also taking in Schubert and Mahler. Newby’s voice has plenty of weight and richness but can be surprisingly light on its feet; he and Middleton together hold Schubert’s Abendstern in rapt suspension, and in Im Freien Middleton’s gently pulsing piano conjures up the vastness of the starry sky. In addition, they offer beautifully controlled versions of five of Britten’s folksong arrangements to bookend the programme.

Contributor

Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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