From Consonance to Atonality and Back in Four Viennese Steps

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Marx: Claire Booth (soprano), BBC Philharmonic / Simone Young (conductor). BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 1.11.2017. (RBa)

Schoenberg – Nocturne
Webern – Passacaglia Op.1
Berg – Three Fragments from Wozzeck
Joseph Marx – Feste im Herbst (Autumnal Revelries)

First, a revelation to open this Second Viennese School concert which was played without interval. The identity of the first piece would only be disclosed after it had been played. It turned out to be Schoenberg’s Nocturne written around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. This five-minute work was creamily suave—a slowly unfolding exercise in aureate glowing pastels with not a harsh moment to be heard. At the end of a most tenderly solicitous performance the conductor asked the audience if they could guess who wrote it. One person tried Bruch and there was a sweetened element in this music to justify the guess.

Webern composed Passacaglia while he had Schoenberg as a music professor. Early it may be, but this often atonal and collage-like assemblage of trails, wraiths, motes and the occasional Brahmsian shred was populated with detail. It spoke as a voice of tonality turned and on the turn. The brass were cast either as fate or inveighing against fate. The score began with a ppp pizzicato and ended in similarly quiet modesty.

Soprano Claire Booth joined the orchestra for the protesting acrid tragedy of Three Fragments from Berg’s Wozzeck. Written during the First World War, Wozzeck is amongst the most unrelentingly downbeat of operas and surely a sign of the times. By contrast with the Webern, its lines are long and undisturbed. Other composers, earlier and later, may come to mind, for example Mahler and Malcolm Arnold in the military band episodes in the first movement. Ms Booth sang, emoted and acted the role of Wozzeck’s wife Marie. It is a most demanding part. It encompasses the widest range of emotional projection and singing including sprechgesang, and she did not stint on arm gestures to underscore the words. She and the orchestra gave a most eloquent account. Ms Booth came to sit in the audience for the last part of the concert.

We do not hear much of Joseph Marx except a song in the occasional lieder recital or CD. In that sense his reputation rather parallels that of the Swiss-German Othmar Schoeck. Both wrote exultantly lyrical music including large bodies of lieder, but each added orchestral music. That includes an over-brimming Violin Concerto in the case of Schoeck, who also wrote quite a few operas; Marx avoided operas altogether. The late-1990s Jecklin CDs of Schoeck’s complete lieder have just been reissued in a 12 disc Membran box. While Schoeck wrote no symphonies, Marx wrote two, including the hour-long and densely lyrical Herbstsymphonie (1921). London audiences will hear it at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 29 November 2017 when it will be played by the LPO conducted by Vladimir Jurowski (UK premiere).

Feste im Herbst, a tone poem by Joseph Marx, derives from the 30 minute finale of the Herbstsymphonie written some 25 years earlier. ‘Euphoric and lush’ hardly begins to describe this music, which was receiving its UK premiere. The title translates as Autumnal Festival, which captures both the lyrical overdrive and the village dance aspects of the score. The Australian conductor Simone Young who already has a notable reputation in Strauss and Wagner referred in her introduction to a melee of other voices to be heard in this 23-minute piece. She mentioned Richard Strauss but for me other names were more apt as an indication of the sound of this melodically intense and gloriously over-brimming piece. Franz Schmidt’s Second Symphony is a kindred spirit as are the Roman tone poems of Respighi. Marx’s Castelli Romani (his second piano concerto) is similarly voluptuous. In this score there’s something also of Bax’s Spring Fire and of Delius in his Song of the High Hills. The light scatter of dance episodes, which had Ms Young stepping it out on the podium, smacked of Kodaly rather than the heavy-booted Schmidt in his Hussar-Song Variations.  The predominance of constantly unfolding and creamily supercharged opulence, as projected by a most impressive BBCPO, also suggested Korngold. In fact one can imagine Marx making quite a name for himself in Hollywood, had history and sympathies taken him in that direction. As it is, do look out for the broadcast of this treasure of late-late romanticism. It seems to speak of a composer enraptured by a prolonged sunset of which he will not let go.

Rob Barnett

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