The Arensky Chamber Orchestra play both versions of Verklärte Nacht

Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht: Arensky Chamber Orchestra, Stephanie Gonley (director). Cadogan Hall, London. 8.7.2011 (MB)

The Arensky Chamber Orchestra continued its pattern of presenting fine musical performances in an unusual and revealing fashion, this evening focused upon Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Not only were there two performances – one for the original string sextet, one for chamber orchestra – but surrounding them were other collaborative efforts, offering different ways of approaching the work. A great deal of effort had gone into preparation, including a blog in which various instrumentalists addressed aspects of the perceived ‘Schoenberg problem’. Impatient as I tend to get with an approach that concedes the ‘problem’ in the first place, given that I have never really perceived it – or at least no more than I have done with, say, Brahms – it would perhaps be unduly ostrich-like to bury one’s head in the sand and deny that some listeners, rightly or wrongly, have a tendency to flee from the composer’s dread name.

I should be happier to substitute ‘audiences’ for ‘listeners’, though, given that many of the perceived ‘difficulties’ dissolve or are at least moderated by fine performances. The poor quality of performances of new music was of course the crucial factor in driving Pierre Boulez to found the Domaine Musical series in the Paris of the mid-1950s: to his mind, well-meaning amateurs, lacking in technical proficiency, did Schoenberg, Webern, et al. more harm than good. What truly surprises, however, is how long reactionary attitudes – for they may no longer be considered merely conservative – have persisted: Schoenberg died in 1951, the emancipation of the dissonance is more than a century old, and Verklärte Nacht now finds itself at the grand old age of 113. Much as I wish the world were otherwise, not everyone loves or, more to the point, even knows, the String Trio or Die glückliche Hand. Given that the problem persists, the ACO finds itself in an honourable lineage indeed, extending back beyond the Domaine Musical, to Schoenberg’s Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (‘Society for Private Musical Performances’), though the master’s defiant authoritarianism has now been supplanted by a greater openness that yet at the same time may be traced back to his own other interests, not least in the visual arts. Schoenberg is surely the finest painter amongst composers; not for nothing was he admired by Kandinsky.

And so, emphasis was also placed upon the visual. Collaborative work with art students resulted in video projections being played in the entrance hall – Thomas Völker’s ‘shadowy dancers’ – as well as during the performance of the string orchestra version of the work. I felt that the latter worked less well, longing merely to hear ‘the music’, but its strong narrative thrust doubtless helped persuade some doubters. Likewise the dramatic presentation of Richard Dehmel’s verse in the pine-laden foyer whilst we sipped our drinks, and artistic director Will Kunhardt’s speaking of Schoenberg’s words in which he relates the music in straightforwardly narrative form to the poem. If I cannot help but wish that Schoenberg had thrown away the ladder of the programme, he did not, and there is nothing to prevent us curmudgeonly Brahmsians from listening to it in more ‘absolute’ fashion. It is good for us, though, to be reminded of the composer’s own inspiration. It was also good to be reminded, through Cristiana Cojanu’s presentation, of Schoenberg’s innovatory Coalition Chess: a complication of the original game whose example some might well have allied to the composer’s complexity of musical expression. Perhaps, then, it was a pity that we did not hear some later Schoenberg too: a possibility for another concert, I hope…

Returning to the Domaine Musical, though, all this would have been of little import, had the performances not been of such a high standard. I am delighted to report that both of them were. The second, string orchestral, version was securely directed by Stephanie Gonley. As is its wont, this version sounded more Romantic, less pioneering than the original, but a secure command of form prevented undue wallowing in the undeniable gorgeousness of Schoenberg’s harmonies. Perhaps an imperative to follow the narrative of Dehmel’s verse played a role too. The work is full of magical moments, of course, but especially magical was that echt­-transfigurative revelation of reconciling, unsullied D major. As the reader may have gathered, my preference tends to be for the sextet version. That received a reading just as fine, arguably even more so, performed by six excellent instrumentalists. Here, as befits the form, expression seemed more urgent. One truly revelled as a listener – and one felt that the players did too – in the sophisticated interplay between chamber music and the musico-dramatic aspect of Schoenberg’s aspirations. Clichéd it may be, but the image of him reconciling, or in many respects furthering the dialectical opposition between, Wagner and Brahms sounded as true as ever. Whilst the orchestral version was presented in conventional concert form, audience members were permitted to wander during the sextet: not a gimmick at all, but a fascinating opportunity to watch over the players and their parts, at least for those of us who occupied the stage. Schoenberg once attempted to dissuade puzzled listeners from preoccupation with twelve-note writing by a linguistic analogy: he is speaking Chinese, but what is he saying? That question is just as relevant to his early tonal works, and, even if the composer’s Idea leaves Dehmel’s verse and indeed all words standing, there could be no doubt that the players communicated that Idea with technical assurance and passionate commitment. More, later, Schoenberg please!

Mark Berry