ARNOLD SCHOENBERG: Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4; Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 – The Smithsonian Chamber Players/Kenneth Slowik – Dorian Sono Luminus DVD + CD

by | Sep 17, 2009 | CD+DVD | 0 comments

ARNOLD SCHOENBERG: Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4; Chamber Symphony No. 1 Op. 9 – The Smithsonian Chamber Players/Kenneth Slowik – Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-90909 DVD + CD [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

This is the perfect dual disc combination of a CD and DVD: a standard stereo CD of both Schoenberg works plus their complete performances on video with Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 audio, combined with several extras on the DVD.  These include a documentary on Schoenberg, a tour of the Schoenberg Center in Vienna, interviews and discussions with Reinbert de Leeuw, Rene Clemencic, Anner Bylsma, Richard Hoffman and others, narrated by conductor Kenneth Slowik.

Transfigured Night is probably Schoenberg’s most approachable work, written in his hyper-expressive late romantic style, prior to his invention of and complete dedication to 12-tone serialism. It is a sextet for two violins, two violas and two cellos and runs a half hour. It is a rather unique tone poem for chamber ensemble, based on a poem by Richard Dehmel, a friend of the composer. Its story concerns a walk in the moonlight by a couple, in which the woman confesses to her beloved that she is with child by a stranger. The man responds that the child will be his via the power of love. The work is divided into two sections: the first depicting a despairing mood with D minor, the second becoming hopeful and ecstatic in D Major. The transition from the first mood to the second is the highlight of the piece.

The Chamber Symphony is for 15 players and in five movements, and mixes 12-tone serialism with tonal passages. There is discussion in the bonus features about the full orchestra version the composer later created of the work, with the opinion by Dutch Schoenberg expert de Leeuw that the original 15-player version is closer to the clarity and contrasts of the original conception. Not being a fan of serialism, I hadn’t previously paid close attention to the Chamber Symphony, but seeing it performed live on the DVD after hearing the thorough discussion and praise for the work from several authorities, I have an entirely new appreciation of it. The range of expression is even wider than in Transfigured Night, and the compression of the musical ideas is extreme – not not nearly as extreme as Schoenberg’s pupil Webern was to do.

The players are all superb, and this project was carried out by Dorian in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution. It’s good to have the CD to listen to portably and in the car, plus when feeding its signal via my Benchmark D-A processor and using Dolby ProLogic, I got less screechy reproduction of the violins than on the DD 5.1 codec provided by the DVD performance, while still getting some surround field. An interesting visual decision was made in mastering the DVD: While the Chamber Symphony performance is videoed normally, the Transfigured Night has a diffusing filter over the lens for a more dreamy and impressionistic view of the musicians – more in tune with the music. 

 My one beef – and the reason I didn’t give this one five stars instead of four – is the aspect ratio problem found on many music DVDs and bonus features: The videos are all window-framed, that is with letterboxing all around rather than just on the left and right sides of standard 4:3 images. The stretch feature provided by my Samsung display distorts this image terribly, and the Zoom feature zooms in so far that much of the image is cropped off.  This occurs with much programming on public TV as well.  Why the image, if 4:3, cannot fill from the top to the bottom of the screen whether one is viewing on a 16:9 or 4:3 display is beyond me.

 – John Sunier

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