What at first glance appears to be a fairly standard selection of some of the best known works of the Second Viennese School, is in fact anything but. For the performances here by the Belgian group Het Collectief of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and First Chamber Symphony, and Berg’s Piano Sonata and the Adagio from his Chamber Concerto, are all of chamber arrangements.
Originally for string sextet, Verklärte Nacht was rescored in the 1930s for piano trio by Eduard Steuermann, the pianist who gave the first performances of a number of Schoenberg’s works, while in 1924 it had been Anton Webern who rescored the Chamber Symphony for the quintet of two winds, two strings and piano that Schoenberg had employed in his melodrama Pierrot Lunaire. Berg himself made the version for violin, clarinet and piano of the central movement of his Chamber Concerto; only the reworking of his sonata for the Pierrot quintet, made at Het Collectief’s request by the Brussels-based composer Tim Mulleman, lacks a direct connection with Schoenberg and his circle.
Expediency was generally the original reason for making these arrangements – in the 1920s it was presumably far easier to arrange a quintet performance of the Chamber Symphony than one involving the 15 players of the original, for instance. And sometimes, too, they cast new light on the music: Webern’s typically analytical treatment of the feverish symphony marvellously brings out the work’s tangled counterpoint, for instance, while Berg’s scaled-down Adagio highlights the lyrical dialogues between the three instruments.
Mulleman’s score is good on the sonata’s impacted lyricism, too, making the work seem much more radical and forward-looking than it often does in its original piano version. The only problematic work here is Verklärte Nacht; Steuermann’s use of a piano to fill in the original string lines seems to muddy everything and turns what is one of the pinnacles of late 19th-century music into a rather hectoring romantic effusion. As in all the works here, Het Collectief’s performance is fine enough, but even their sensitivity can’t replace what is fundamentally missing.
This week’s other pick
Egon Wellesz studied briefly with Schoenberg in the early 1900s, and afterwards combined careers as a composer and academic, first in Vienna and, after the Anschluss in 1938, for the rest of his life in Oxford. Toccata Classics’ collection of Wellesz’s chamber music, idiomatically played by the Veles Ensemble, focuses on Wellesz’s late works – string trios, a string quartet and a clarinet quintet, composed between 1959 and 1971. It’s a sequence of wonderfully spare, atonal miniatures, in which not a note is wasted, and in which the links to Schoenberg’s world are always clear.