Alban Berg/Karl Amadeus Hartmann: Tief in der Nacht (ECM New Series 2153)

Tief in der Nacht

Alban Berg
Karl Amadeus Hartmann
Tief in der Nacht

Juliane Banse soprano
Aleksandar Madžar piano
Recorded March 2009, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

A grey man goes through the silent wood
singing a dismal song.
The birds at once fall silent.
The spruces tower so mute and sultry
with the heavy turmoil of their branches.
A sound rumbles in distant depths.
–Johannes Schlaf, “Rain”

When discussing Alban Berg, it’s almost impossible not to include Arnold Schoenberg, a mentor of whom he was the brightest protégé. While Berg grew into his own as a defining composer of the early 20th century, in scholarship and on record his early songs were relatively ignored at the time of this release. More than a transition stage, these songs embody key qualities of the composer’s output to come. The hand of Schoenberg is felt less in the music, which still has a foot in the waning Romantic era, and more in the assembly, as the Sieben frühe Lieder (1905–1908) that open the program were extracted from a set of thirty written under his teacher’s careful scrutiny. Setting the poetry of Carl Hauptmann, Nikolaus Lenau, Theodor Storm, Rainer Maria Rilke, Johannes Schlaf, Otto Erich Hartleben, and Paul Hohenberg, these seven songs are stippled with shadows and patches of forest, and the apparent ease with which soprano Juliane Banse and pianist Aleksandar Madžar weave through them enriches the listening experience. With titles like “Nacht” (Night) and “Traumgekrönt” (Crowned in Dreams), one can already sense the nocturnal imagery before a single word is sung. “You came,” goes a verse of the latter, “and softly as in a fairy tale the night resounded.” Thus the lyrics lead us into a world of fantasy. Whether carried on the back of “Die Nachtigall” (The Nightingale) or brightened in the final clip of “Sommertage” (Summer Days), each word turns charcoal to ash and ash to flame.

Rilke, Schlaf, and Storm further populate the Jugendlieder (1904-08) of the same period, along with poetry by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Carl Busse, and Peter Altenberg. Now the verses as well as the music are more colorful and, in light of Berg’s compact developments, genuinely impressionistic. From melancholic lullabies—“I mourn lost happiness,” sings Banse in “Erster Verlust” (First Loss)—to the Mozartian patterning of “Hoffnung” (Hope), composer and musicians draw from a nuanced palette of evocative pigments. Schlaf’s “Regen” (Rain) makes for a beautiful highlight, finding in the music a life only implied in the text. All of this culminates in “Mignon,” which expresses a longing for some idyllic land that, while beyond the reach of flesh, blooms across the landscape of art.

Two settings of the same poem—“Schließe mir die Augen beide” (Close Both My Eyes) by Storm—complete the Berg selections. The first, written in 1907, is already a masterful explosion and re-piecing of utterance, while the 1925 version works almost scientifically to balance freedom and precision. What was once a telescope now becomes a microscope.

Banse is extraordinary, not only for her diction but also for the steadiness of her footing as she journeys across Madžar’s constantly shifting topography. Berg is always felt, and Schoenberg over his shoulder, assuring that every change happens in mutual understanding, so that densities and clarities alike always share a strand.

One of those strands surely leads to Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Lamento (1955), a work that in its original 1936/37 form bore dedication to Berg. Like Hartmann, it survived the war—during which time he studied with another Schoenberg protégé, Anton Webern, in Vienna—with not a few dark clouds in its memory. For this, Hartmann sets three poems of 17th-century Silesian dramatist Andreas Gryphius. One may not feel this as a trilogy, but as a continuous gradation of dusk to dawn. “Elend” (Misery) compares earthly and heavenly troops, and engages the wonder of God’s non-action. Although the light flowers in Banse’s delivery, the geometric diffusion that follows casts a pessimistic shadow to be obliterated in the central song, “An Meine Mutter” (To My Mother). This eulogistic prayer acknowledges the potency of the divine in the realm beyond, a realm in which grace leaks out through Banse’s powerful highs. In the final “Friede” (Peace), she emphasizes the core message: “We once were dead; now peace a life is giving.” The pianism throughout is exquisitely written and executed, and leaves us, like the album as a whole, to reckon with the authority of silence.

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