Night Review Transfigured – Poetic Journeys Between Darkness and Light

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Richard Dehmel’s 1896 poem Verklärte Nacht inspired more than one piece of exhilarating Romantic music. Schoenberg’s masterpiece for strings, first conceived as a sextet in 1899, revised for string orchestra almost two decades later, and hardly out of the mind of the composer for the remainder of his life, remains the best known. It is the central piece of this recording in its orchestral version, and Edward Gardner elicits from the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s strings playing lush intensity but also ravishing delicacy, recorded in the studio a few days before the first cutoff. But it is the rest of the repertoire that makes this record especially interesting.

Another Verklärte Nacht inspired composer was Oskar Fried, who set the words for mezzo-soprano, tenor and orchestra as a glowingly romantic tone poem. In music that blossoms from darkness to light, Fried captures the poem’s theme of transcendence, eventually framing the tenor soloist as a kind of Wagnerian hero – to whom Stuart Skelton rises gloriously, while Christine Rice lends the mezzo-music soprano’s a gentle fullness. In Korngold’s Four Songs of Farewell, Gardner always seems to get the best out of Skelton, who is similarly in his element, the first of which seems to anticipate Strauss’s Four Last Songs, written almost three decades later.

And what about Fever, the powerful tenor and orchestra scene that opens the CD – what composer could that be, painting the feverish hallucinations of the dying soldier in such vibrant colors? Perhaps a clue is the swirling waltz of his ballroom dreams: it’s Franz Lehár, known as a master of light opera but obviously very much at home making a very serious subject out of a rousing musical drama.

Vienna also focuses on this recording: a recital by rising baritone James Newby and pianist Joseph Middleton centered around Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte cycle, as well as Schubert and Mahler. The voice of Newby has plenty of weight and richness, but it can be surprisingly light on his feet; he and Middleton hold the rapturous suspension of Schubert’s Abendstern together, and in Im Freien, the gently pulsating piano of Middleton evokes the vastness of the starry sky.

Moreover, to close the program, they offer beautifully controlled versions of five of Britten’s folk song arrangements.

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