Camerata Bern/Zehetmair: Verklärte Nacht (ECM New Series 1714)


Thomas Zehetmair
Camerata Bern
Verklärte Nacht

Thomas Zehetmair violin and director
Camerata Bern
Recorded 1999 at Radio DRS, Zurich; 1995 at Salle de Musique, LaChaux-de-Fonds
Engineer: Bernd Runge and Eberhard Hinz
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Splendour falls on everything around,
you are voyaging with me on a cold sea,
but there is the glow of an inner warmth
from you in me, from me in you.
–Richard Dehmel, “Transfigured Night” (trans. Mary Whittall)

It’s difficult to believe that the first performance of Arnold Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) in 1901 incited a riot, prompting one critic to report, “It sounds as if someone had smudged the score of Tristan while it was still wet.” Structured as it is around the eponymous poem by Richard Dehmel, in which two lovers test their resolve while wandering in moonlight, the gossamer threads of night are its makeup. Along with The Book of the Hanging Gardens, it is one of the composer’s most visceral works. Not easy listening, to be sure, but nothing worth coming to blows over, either. Its lyrical chromaticism is lush yet opaque and descriptive to the core. Its contours slowly come into focus like a whale from a dark sea, Zehetmair’s violin waiting along with the seagulls for any morsels to escape from its yawning food trap. The Camerata Bern pays strictest attention to rhythm, caressing every beat with its strings. Though branded as a nocturnal affair, the piece also resounds with light. Certain sections sound like a magnified string quartet, while others breathe with the lung capacity of a full orchestra, but always with characteristic insulation. Like Wagner at his most self-effacing, Schönberg emotes with high narrative volume, as though a ballet and an opera had been stripped of words and collapsed into this one glorious whole.

After a glassy stillness that leaves us transfigured ourselves, the Four Transylvanian Dances of Sándor Veress pull us to our marionetted feet with spirited urgency. The second of these, with its finely wrought pizzicato beads, is notably heartwarming, while the fourth contrasts processional ceremony with outright exuberance. I can hardly imagine a better segue into Béla Bartók’s famed Divertimento (1939), of which the opening is perhaps the Hungarian’s most recognizable motif. Lower strings emerge as a major consonant force against the more adventurous uppers, which dance their way into the Adagio with infectious verve. The musicians’ dynamic control is on full alert here, as quiet restraint carries over into a cyclical swell of emotive power. The third and final movement is played to perfection. Its accentuating fingerboard slaps, solo cello, and open-stringed double stops stand out with scintillating clarity, all wrung through an imitative filter before ending with a pizzicato-friendly “micro-ballet.” The Divertimento, a more precise rendering of which I cannot recall, was the result of a commission by patron Paul Sacher, whose importance one can gauge further in ECM’s kaleidoscopic tribute album.

Verklärte Nacht scores another hit for Zehetmair, whose quartet album pairing Hartmann and Bartók made a concurrent appearance to equal acclaim. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have both on your shelf.

Sándor Veress (ECM New Series 1555)

Sándor Veress

Camerata Bern
London Voices
Heinz Holliger oboe and conductor
Recorded February 1993, Salle de Musique, La Chaux de Fonds
January 1992, BBC Maida Vale Studio, London
Engineers: Andreas Neubronner and John Whiting

I set off from my beautiful fatherland,
My little, glorious Hungary.
Halfway, I turned and looked back
And my eyes were filled with tears.

Hungarian-born Sándor Veress (1907-1992) is a sadly neglected figure in modern music. Despite his pupilage under Bela Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, and even his succession over the latter as professor of composition at the Budapest School of Music in 1943, Veress has never attained the same international recognition as his two most successful compatriots. One might blame his preference for solitude or his idiomatic methodology for keeping him in obscurity. Yet as one who made the most of his outlier status and ideological exile, he seems never to have been one to wallow in self-pity. Exposed to much of the folk music that also captivated his mentors, Veress nurtured that same spirit when sociopolitical upheaval exacerbated his emigration to Switzlerland in 1949. Whereas Kodály in particular saw cultural preservation as central to the musical act, Veress saw it as an incision to be teased open and unraveled.

Veress was as much a giver as he was a receiver of compositional heritage, and himself provided valuable tutelage throughout his career to such pioneers as György Ligeti, György Kurtág, and, most significantly here, Heinz Holliger, for whom the opening Passacaglia Concertante (1961) for oboe and string orchestra was written. Veress’s fondness for the oboist extraordinaire is palpable in every measure of this impassioned recording. The first plucked string is like an idea dropped into water, from which viola-heavy interpretations issue with the force of an approaching storm. The meticulous Allegro scherzando is an enthralling realization of concise melodrama, while the relatively protracted third movement maintains a dark tension throughout, ever heightened by Holliger’s circular sustains and tonal acuity. The piece’s somber ending leaves us with much to ponder as we wander into the seven madrigals known as Songs Of The Seasons (1967). These mixed choir settings of poems by Christopher Brennan (1870-1932), an Australian poet whose lack of affiliation and anti-lyricism primes him for the clustered treatment he receives here, are rife with potent themes: dreams and the fragility of time and place, the musicality of the body as an emotive instrument, the ever ineffable springtime, sunlight as soul and its expansion into the oneness of all, and flickering images of a past love all intermingle in a playful exposition of language. The “sweet silence after bells” of Part IV is especially redolent, and in it one can hear shades of Holliger’s own vocal writing just two decades later. Where the Songs are effervescent and whimsical, the Musica Concertante (1966) for twelve strings is highly centrifugal. As a chamber work modeled after Bach’s third and sixth Brandenburg Concertos, it looks beyond its own formulaic outline even as it cowers within it, happily merging disparate streams and leaving us with a river to be reckoned with as we continue to wade against the current of an unrelenting music industry in which such voices are all too easily forgotten.

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