Mahler with Hampson and Vogt in Vienna is cloaked in Schoenberg

AustriaAustria Schoenberg, Mahler: Thomas Hampson, Klaus Florian Vogt, Wiener Virtuosen. Große Musikvereinssaal, Vienna, 1.11.2015. (SS)

Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht, op. 4

Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde (arr. Arnold Schoenberg & Rainer Riehn)

Having arranged Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in 1920, Schoenberg turned his attention the following year to Das Lied von der Erde. The aim was to produce chamber versions suitable for the limited forces at the disposal of Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances. ‘Out of this necessity,’ wrote Berg, ‘a virtue was made. In this manner it becomes possible to hear and judge modern orchestral works denuded of all the sensuous resources and timbral effects which only an orchestra conveys. We thus disprove the commonly heard reproach that this music owes its impact merely to the relative richness and potency of its orchestration.’

The Webern scholar Kathryn Bailey has pointed out that many a ‘modern’ composer, particularly the French (one imagines figures like Scriabin and Szymanowski too), might have disputed Berg’s notion of instrumental colour as non-integral overlay. A joy, too, of collecting the now much-recorded Society arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony are Erwin Stein’s substitutions, which synthesize the piece anew with their own distinct charm.

This chamber version of Das Lied, played by the Wiener Virtuosen, an ensemble drawn from the ranks of the Vienna Philharmonic, offered a chance to hear the fabled ‘Wiener Klang’ applied to some familiar material in an altered constellation, but in that respect the results were relatively conventional-sounding. The evening had started off promisingly with a genteel but slick Verklärte Nacht in the original string sextet version. Ploughing through the chromatic thickets before a big sideways lurch into D major would be, as might have been expected, not so very ‘philharmonisch’, but despite all that is eerie and brooding about the piece switched out for mellow lyricism this was an alluringly fluid account of the work which glided by in a single take.

Contributions like Wolfgang Vladar’s exquisitely limpid horn playing aside, a burnished and homogenous Viennese sound was harder to come by in Das Lied, and the mesmeric flow of the Schoenberg didn’t carry over much either. The pastoral imagery of the two brief central movements, ‘Von der Jugend’ and ‘Von der Schönheit’, worked best, with the ensemble bonding most smoothly with the singers and vivid in the various natural and orientalist elements. The other movements struggled to find a similar groove, but the playing was essentially solid throughout. The meditative writing of ‘Der Abschied’, always difficult to pull off, felt static but not shapeless.

This completion of Schoenberg’s arrangement – really an arrangement by the recently departed German composer Rainer Riehn, since Schoenberg halted his work halfway through the first song – was performed in the tenor and baritone line-up with Klaus Florian Vogt, one of the most striking Lohengrins around today, and experienced Mahler hand Thomas Hampson. Vogt’s ever-boyish, easily identifiable tenor intermittently militated against the text, so the work’s Dionysian appeals sounded bashfully embraced and neither life nor death seemed all that dunkel, but the tessitura doesn’t tax him and he’s a highly committed singer. Interaction with the worldview of the piece fell to Hampson; a position one senses he doesn’t hugely mind occupying alone. The voice seemed a little tired, or at least not as invigorated as it had been at an excellent Musikverein Liederabend back in April. His sung German has always possessed a strong poetic sensibility and he got the audience’s rapt attention when delivering lines like ‘Mein Herz ist müde. Meine kleine Lampe erlosch mit Knistern’ (‘my heart is weary. My little lamp has gone out with a sputter’). ‘Der Abschied’ wasn’t the most memorable piece of Mahler singing I’ve heard from this artist but up to the end he was still supplying most of this Lied’s atmospherics. 

Seb Smallshaw

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