Intriguing arrangements and fine musicianship from Anita Monserrat and the members of Mad Song

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler, Müller-Hermann, and Schoenberg: Anita Monserrat (soprano), Mad Song (Hannah Gillingham [flute], James Gilbert [clarinet], Seleni Stewart [violin], Benedict Swindells [cello], Gus Tredwell [piano]) / Joshua Ballance (conductor). St John the Baptist Church, High Barnet, London, 22.7.2021. (MB)

Mad Song

Johanna Müller-Hermann, arr. Joshua Balance — Fünf Lieder, Opp.11 and 32

Mahler, arr. Balance – Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

Schoenberg, arr. Webern – Chamber Symphony No.1, Op.9

To the (other) end of the Northern Line, to High Barnet (Chipping Barnet, if you prefer), for a wonderful concert in the inaugural season of the High Barnet Chamber Music Festival, conceived during lockdown by conductor and scholar Joshua Ballance. Here was a judicious mixture of known and — to me, at any rate — unknown, the known in new, chamber guise, arranged by Ballance and Webern (whose music features in Ballance’s doctoral study).

First, the unknown: two songs from Johanna Müller-Hermann’s Op.11 (c.1914) and three from her Op.32 (between 1932 and 1936). It was a fascinating opportunity to hear music from this Zemlinsky pupil. If the music sounded broadly how one might a priori have expected it to sound, that is not intended to convey shortcoming. The first two songs, both Goethe settings, ‘Nähe des Geliebten’ and ‘An die Entfernte’, initially had me thinking in (necessary?) clichés to orient myself: post-Brahms, post-Zemlinsky, but never to be reduced to mere influence. If vocal lines, especially phrase endings, had a certain Classical quality to them, that is not necessarily a bad thing and they were not entirely without surprises, suggesting perhaps a kinship with early Schoenberg songs (or those of Berg and Webern, for that matter). Harmonies were definitely of the time, whatever that may mean. These are well-crafted songs, worth anyone’s attention, in equally well-crafted arrangements: the first inviting, the second imploring and speaking not only of, but with, sad resignation.

As Müller-Hermann’s song-writing developed, so too did the arrangements in which we heard them. Ballance’s work both as arranger and conductor in the Hofmannsthal song, ‘Vorfrühling’, hinted cunningly and seductively at Second Viennese School possibilities, whilst remaining true to Müller-Hermann’s more conservative style. This song seemed to look both to a typical expressionist landscape and the more stifling eroticism of the contemporary drawing room. In ‘Du schlank und rein’, Stefan George offered a verbal framework for kaleidoscopic harmony and timbre, above which the excellent soprano Anita Monserrat floated a finely spun yet variegated vocal line. Equally attentive to words and music, Monserrat suggested darker currents, as did Balance, in ‘In Traum und Gesang’ (Rudolf Alexander Schröder), Brahmsian in part, yet again far from reducible to any such model.

We know Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in piano and orchestral guise. Why not an ensemble somewhere in between? Why not indeed, especially in such fine performances as those offered by Ballance and his Pierrot ensemble Mad Song. Such instrumentation could hardly avoid to suggest the Second Viennese future, but there are tendencies enough, even in early Mahler, that this sounded the most natural step in the world. The combination of naïveté and alienation was spot on, allied to fine command of line and tempo. By the time we reached the second song, ‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld’, the enormity of hearing Mahler at long last again in the flesh hit home. There was little question, whether from Monserrat or Mad Song, that this was the real thing: exultant, and perhaps somewhere with a glimmer of that hope we have learned to call by its mediaeval name, ‘respair’. The final question, might happiness now begin, and negative response, no it can never bloom for me, hit home all the more strongly in such heart-stopping guise. ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ received hochdramatisch treatment, very much on a knife-edge, and pivoting in truly Mahlerian fashion to hallucinogenic new vistas, though not against form. The closing ‘Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz’ seemed very much to speak to our recent (and current) trauma, uncertain rebuilding, and further illusion and hope. A mirage? Perhaps, yet what else do we have? Haunting was the mot juste.

Webern’s arrangement (1922-3) of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony completed the programme. Unsurprisingly, Webern seems especially concerned to play up Schoenberg’s constructivism of fourths at the opening — or is it that one wants to hear that, knowing who it is? That was how it sounded, at any rate, balanced by Schoenberg’s well-nigh profusion of melody. Ballance’s reading, especially during the exposition, spoke of a musical understanding that had nothing to prove other than the immanent qualities of this extraordinary music. Later on, he seemed especially keen to characterise the character of individual ‘movements’ within Schoenberg’s overall single-movement form, though there was certainly affinity between them too. Variation of tempo at micro- and macro-levels was in general finely judged. If there were occasional corners whose turning seemed slightly abrupt, that is largely testament to what difficult music this is to bring off convincingly. That achievement was never in doubt, and it was intriguing to hear the ‘slow movement’ taken with more Brucknerian breadth. Not everything need, nor should, be taken frenetically here. Playing was committed throughout, Benedict Swindells’s cello perhaps first among equals. How welcome it was to welcome back both Schoenberg and Mahler, and to welcome a team of fine musicians from whom we shall doubtless hear more.

Mark Berry

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