Horenstein conducts BERG and SCHOENBERG = BERG: Altenberglieder; SCHOENBERG: Verklaerte Nacht; Kammersymphonie No. 1 – Irma Kolassi, mezzo-sop./ Orch. Nat. de la Radiodiffusion Francaise (Berg)/ Orch. of SW German Radio/ Jascha Horenstein – Pristine Audio

by | Jul 26, 2015 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Horenstein conducts BERG and SCHOENBERG = BERG: Altenberglieder; SCHOENBERG: Verklaerte Nacht, Op. 4; Kammersymphonie No. 1, Op. 9 – Irma Kolassi, mezzo-sop./ Orchestre Nat. de la Radiodiffusion Francaise (Berg)/ Orch. of the SW German Radio/ Jascha Horenstein – Pristine Audio PASC 445, 67:11 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] *****:

Few musical premieres have raised as much commotion as that of Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs at the 31 March 1913 concert at the Vienna Musikverein, under the direction of Arnold Schoenberg. While only two of the songs – intoned by Julius Boruttau as a last-minute substitute for Marya Freund – were heard, they were enough to spark a riot that would soon be surpassed by Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps a couple of months later.  Only in 1952 Paris did Jascha Horenstein perform the five Peter Altenberg songs as Berg conceived them.  Stravinsky applauded Berg’s opus for its craftsmanship, exclaiming, “What exquisite pieces they are, especially the Passacaglia, No. 5.” The picture-post-card lyrics by Altenberg the audience found both aphoristic and morally outrageous. The wind chord of twelve different pitches for the third song had one observer remark, “It was an inimitably dissonant piling up of sounds.”

Berg’s formal sense in the Altenberg Lieder goes far beyond the plain twelve-tone serial aspect Schoenberg established. The most persuasive structural device in the whole cycle is a harmonic one—a five-note chord progresses to a different five-note chord at the curtain-raiser climax of the first song, fff; in the fifth song, the reverse progression subtly but distinctly ends the fifth song, pp: “Here, snow gently drips into pools of water. . .” In his orchestration, too, Berg reveals a rich imagination whose instrumental novelties induced Schoenberg to claim Berg’s scoring “immature,” a proclamation likely based on envy.

Horenstein’s performance (4 May 1953) with Irma Kolassi (b. 1918) brings a rare, intensely histrionic dimension to these songs, as challenging to our ears today as they had been a century ago. The vocal tessitura ranges from plainsong recitation to high, Sprechstimme slides and quivers in various registrations, often shifting rapidly.  The orchestral color quite dazzles, given the menace and expressive uneasiness of its contexts.

The Schoenberg performances derive from studio sessions for Vox, October 1957. The spectral clarity of Horenstein’s reading of Verklaerte Nacht with (Rosbaud’s) Southwest German Radio Orchestra makes a fine comparison with the contemporary inscription Mitropoulos made (1960) for CBS with the New York Philharmonic. Both conductors innately respond to the erotic and neurotic spasm the work projects as a response to the Richard Dehmel poem of illicit love redeemed by personal faith. The d minor sextet – in its original scoring – compresses much of Wagner and Massenet’s Thais into a melodrama whose structure owes debts to Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy and the Liszt B Minor Sonata.  The gripping power of each interpretation lies in the agonized string execution, especially as Schoenberg’s harmony excruciatingly moves through e-flat minor in an unbroken arch to the “redemption” motif in D Major.  Schoenberg specifically asks for “warmth” in the realization of his score, and both Mitropoulos and Horenstein bring a decisive heat to this emotionally charged score, the text of which the composer found “repulsive.” Unlike the readings by Craft, Karajan, and Boulez – each conveying a chill detachment, whatever their string sheen – Horenstein and Mitropoulos confer a deep humanity captured in reverberant sound, in this case, remastered by Andrew Rose.

The Chamber Symphony of 1906 – orchestrated in 1935 – eschews the Romantic effusion of the string sextet, compressing the traditional symphony into 15 instruments who must realize impulses selected for their brevity and economy: fourths, whole-tones, and scalar patterns exploited melodically and vertically.  Horenstein rushes into the F Major introduction for a loose sonata-form structure which soon piles on harmonies for a modulation into E Major.  Much of the music vacillates between risoluto and scherzando affects, colored by individual wind, brass, and string punctuations. The “tunes” as such elicit a family resemblance to Richard Strauss. The consistent presence of rising fourths as a binding procedure adds Mahler to the allusions or debts paid in this iconoclastic work, which Horenstein realizes with that firm, muscular conviction and Viennese sympathy that defines his best work.

—Gary Lemco

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