You'll have to wait until almost the end of the first CD of this excellent four-CD set (the twelfth of the "Hanging Gardens" cycle, Wenn sich bei heiliger Ruh in tiefen Matten [CD.1. tr.31]) to hear music that you'd usually associate with the new ground plowed by Schoenberg. Most of the songs on the first CD could have been written by Hugo Wolf, or Schumann, Fauré or even Schubert! This is useful, for here is a collection with half a dozen accomplished singers and four instrumentalists of all the songs Schoenberg wrote. It gives a sense of this neglected area of the composer's output.
Schoenberg's songs don't represent the spectrum of styles that the rest of his music does. There are the "Brettl-Lieder" (Cabaret Songs) [CD.2 tr.s 15-22] – lighthearted, idiomatic, witty yet of instant appeal; the much more substantial "Acht Lieder" (Eight Songs) Opus 6 [CD.4 tr.s 3-10] and the aforementioned "Buch der hangenden Garten" (Op. 15) [CD.1 tr.s 20-34]. Most of Schoenberg's songs date from the first dozen or so years of his composing life. During the time when he was writing Serial music, he failed to write many songs… the Four German Folksongs (1929) [CD.4 tr.s 17-20] and the Three Songs (1933, Op. 48) [CD.4 tr.s 21-23] are exceptions. The majority of works on these four CDs show the extent of the influence of the likes of Brahms and the conventional Lieder tradition. Far fewer from the time when the composer was dismantling tonality – and then the posthumous songs suggest something of a return to tonality. Because the forces for which the songs were scored (never more than four or five performers) the composer's development in this respect can be exposed with great transparency. And is here. There is little clinical about these performances, though. They're all respectful and engaged, if a little formal.
The quality of the singing is generally high. Though at times the singers seem concerned to project a minimally interpreted rendering of the songs, rather than particularly expressive or colorful versions. This is perhaps in accord with their place in the repertory (an equally minimal one) as much as anything. Although the essay which comes with the CDs suggests that a consciously "Romantic" approach was taken in the conception and execution of the performances, it's hard to discern. The hundred or so songs in the set from Capriccio are certainly all sung with sensitivity, gentleness and a great deal of sympathy towards their world and what they meant to Schoenberg. The singers' techniques are for the most part very pleasing. Though soprano Claudia Barainsky's (heard on the second CD) hold of some notes is at times a trifle shaky. Melanie Diener's soprano, on the other hand, is surer, has a fuller vocal production and seems closer to the songs and thus abler to convey their full meaning. Her articulation and expression in the "Acht Lieder", Op. 6 [CD.4. tr.s 3-10], for instance, are compelling… full of pathos, projection and warmth.
Similarly, baritone Konrad Jarnot sings most convincingly. In common with the others, he delights in taking the songs at face value, in assuming almost nothing about what we should or should not make of this corner of Schoenberg's œuvre. The same goes for the others: Jarnot (baritone) and Anke Vondung (mezzo); they direct their main focus onto the texts; texts which range from Goethe to George. Special mention must be made of Urs Liska's clean, persuasive and idiomatic piano accompaniment across all four CDs. A student of James Avery and Ramón Walte at the Musikhochschule in Freiburg, this appears to be the first recording of his: quite a debut. particularly admirable is his breadth of confident and perceptive playing, which both supports the singers and draws our interest as the music progresses.
Jens Peters Jakobsen's texts [CD.3 tr.s 6-19], which became those of the Gurrelieder, are of particular interest. They are sung particularly well by Diener and tenor Markus Schäfer (whose rich timbre is almost redolent of the Helden register of the late Fischer-Diskau's voice; although Schäfer doesn't have so much in reserve). These are the original piano versions with two voices. One can already sense the lush and searing sound world into which Schoenberg was later to reach. Here though both singers perform the songs for what they are; not what they would become. The interpretation of singers and pianist is warm, compelling and has an atmosphere that stays with you long after the final strident yet far from petulant notes have sounded.
This set has a lot going for it, then. Not only is it as complete as anything else available. It's been carefully conceived, imaginatively executed and well presented. There are songs here that are unavailable elsewhere. And while anyone seeking explorations by Schoenberg of small-scale vocal works in serial format will be disappointed, that's because the composer wrote so few, not because – despite the rather self-conscious introduction in the printed material about "liking or hating" Schoenberg – they've been omitted.
The acoustic on these CDs is close and makes them accessible without being pressing. The booklet contains useful essays and surveys, full track listings and brief biographies of the performers all in German and English, and the full texts in German. The font size is correspondingly small for the fewer than 50 pages into which all this welcome material has been fitted. Certainly a set of historical interest. But one with much enticing, if unfamiliar, music on it.
Copyright © 2012, Mark Sealey.