ALBAN BERG (1885 – 1935): Lyrische Suite [with alternate version of Largo desolato movement with soprano]; EGON WELLESZ (1885 – 1974): Sonette der Elisabeth Barrett Browning, Opus 52; and ERIC ZEISL (1905 – 1959): ‘Komm, süßer Tod’ [arranged for soprano and string quartet by J. Peter Koene]—Renée Fleming, soprano; Emerson String Quartet [Recorded at Queens College, Flushing, New York, USA, 2 and 6 December 2014, and 11 – 12 February 2015 (Berg), and at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey, USA, 28 – 29 August 2014 (Wellesz and Zeisl); DECCA 478 8399; 1 CD, 56:28; Available from DECCA Classics, Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
Like the works of Leonardo da Vinci, the plays of Molière, and the designs of Sir Christopher Wren, the music of Alban Berg is a turning point in Western culture. Born in 1885, when the Austrian Hapsburgs were enjoying their final flourishes of popularity and Vienna remained the musical capital of the Family Strauß, Berg evolved into an indelible but not inflexible exponent of the Second Viennese School whose Wozzeck and Lulu traded the tonal opulence of Wagner and Richard Strauss for convoluted, post-Freudian psychology explored in free-form, twelve-tone scores that posed new challenges to conductors, musicians, singers, and audiences. The ideals that Berg pursued in the opera house also occupied his composition of concert music, the programmatic development of thematic material playing an important rôle in his creative process at all stages of his career. His latent radicalism notwithstanding, there are positively-charged protons of traditionalism darting through the atomic structures of even Berg's most experimental works, particles that some proponents of the composer's music ignore or reject outright as incompatible with the avant-garde propensities upon which his renown is founded. It seems ridiculous for occasional nods to Bruckner and Mahler to be construed as betrayals of the coven of Schönberg and Webern, but Music was never a congenial environment for logic or compromise. The pockets of lyricism deemed antiquated by his contemporaries are what now set Berg's music apart from the cacophonous scores of more hard-boiled adherents of Schönbergian aesthetics, promoting Berg from the ranks of masters of a singular idiom to acclaim as one of the most significant individual voices in the course of Western music's progress. In short, many of his similarly-inclined comrades in musical arms produced significant, landscape-altering scores, but Berg composed works that listeners for whom music should be tunes, not treatises, actually want to hear.
To state that Berg's Lyrische Suite is among his most accessible pieces is not to suggest that the music is in any way 'easy' for performers or listeners. First published in 1927, the Suite was the offspring of Berg's brief sojourn with a prominent industrialist, Herbert Fuchs-Robettin, and his family in 1925. Though it might colloquially be said that at the age of forty he was old enough to have known better, it was the sensitive composer's lot to fall in love with the lady of the house. The extent to which the affection was requited is a matter of debate, but the manuscript score containing written explications of the personal associations of the music—naturally omitted from the published edition—remained for many years in the collection of Lady Industrialist's daughter Dorothea, herself a subject of the Suite's musical portraiture. The gentlemen of Emerson String Quartet—violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins—here play the Suite straightforwardly, mostly allowing the music to makes its own points without imposing interpretive quirks on either the score or the listener. Though the sound that they craft is not always ideally homogeneous, especially in terms of bowing and phrasing among the individual players, the Emerson players largely avoid the hyper-Romantic vibrato that mars the playing of many of today's string quartets. The restless subject of the opening Allegretto gioviale movement is delivered with strong senses of its muscular, dodecaphonic angularity and abundant high spirits. This contrasts markedly with the retiring, almost embarrassed mood of the Andante amoroso that follows, conjured with eloquence that occasionally seems too considered for the shy sentiments of the music. Intonation is suspect in a few passages of the quartet's playing of the Allegro misterioso — Trio estatico movement, but the manic energy of the Trio is splendidly evinced. It is especially evident here and in each of the movements of Lyrische Suite that reliably solid playing of the viola part is absolutely crucial to the success of a performance of this music, and Dutton is thankfully up to the task. The quartet's performance of the Adagio appassionato unfurls the unsettling sensuality of the music in long swaths of densely-constructed melody. The tempestuousness of the music would not sound out of place in Beethoven's late Quartets, but Berg's ambiguous harmonies, influenced by the chromaticism of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, quoted in the Suite, place the sound world of the movement squarely in the Twentieth Century. The ambivalence of the Presto delirando — Tenebroso is imparted by the quartet with subtlety but unmistakable meaning, the gnawing anguish of Berg's misbegotten love resounding in the unconventional part writing. The closing Largo desolato movement is effectively an elegy for reckless passion, marked by a starkness of musical language that communicates much of what must have been in the composer's heart. Emerson String Quartet's playing delves into the emotional maelstrom of the music without drowning in desolation. Berg's twelve-tone style is at once compellingly modern and bizarrely approachable, and the Emerson musicians respond with obvious concentration. Ultimately, their reading of the Suite is more prose than poetry, but the lack of treacly sentimentality is laudable.
The long-disputed version of the closing Largo desolato with voice was restored only upon the discovery of the 1925 score in Dorothea Robettin's possession. The elusive text employed by Berg proved to be Stefan George's German translation of 'De profundis clamavi' from Charles Baudelaire's seminal Les Fleurs du mal, and the composer's handling of the provocative words shows the confidence that emanates from the scores of Wozzeck and Lulu. It is not solely for reasons of propriety that Baudelaire's text was suppressed when Lyrische Suite went to press: it is impossible to ascertain whether Berg truly wanted performances of the Suite to include a vocal soloist or he wrote the Baudelaire setting merely as an intimate exercise, a sort of exorcism of a deeply personal demon. Whatever the implications and intentions of its creation, the vocal rendering of the Largo desolato is sung by world-renowned soprano Renée Fleming with remarkable breadth of feeling. George's German words miss many of the nuances of Baudelaire's text, but Fleming finds lurking beneath the surface of Berg's music layers of meaning that heighten the voluptuousness of the composer's deceptively bare word settings. Fleming rises gloriously to the piece's climax, her voice almost becoming another sound produced by the quartet's instruments in the way that voice and orchestra unite in the final pages of Strauss's Daphne.
An exact contemporary of Berg, Egon Wellesz shared his colleague's refined Viennese sensibilities. Indeed, so pervasive was the composer's devotion to the musical precepts of his native city that not even four decades of exposure to British traditions, facilitated by a tenure at Oxford, unseated Wellesz's dedication to the Austrian models upon which his artistic identity was built. Composed in 1934 for soprano and string quartet, his Sonette der Elisabeth Barrett Browning (Opus 52), settings of five of the poet's Sonnets from the Portuguese in superb German translations by Rainer Maria Rilke, are a fittingly glowing homage to the literary legacy of the nation that eventually sheltered him after the Anschluss. The influences of Bruckner and Mahler are even more apparent—and even more unapologetically so—in Wellesz's music than in Berg's, and both Fleming and the Emerson String Quartet revel in the sometimes sinewy, sometimes soft-grained, always beautiful textures of the Sonnets. The bookish reticence that simmers in 'Und es geschah mir einst, an Theokrit zu denken' (Getragen) [Barrett Browning's 'I thought once how Theocritus had sung'] inspires Fleming to a performance of understated complexity that draws strength from the quartet's undulating accompaniment. It is the beauty of the voice that lofts 'Nur drei jedoch in Gottes ganzem All vernahmen es' (Sehr breit) ['But only three in all God's universe have heard'] into the realm of brilliance, the soprano's diction exhibiting an unaffected mysticism that makes the persona she derives from Wellesz's vocal lines suddenly seem like a German-speaking Ellen Orford. The Emerson musicians provide Fleming with a gleaming canvas upon which to paint a bold vista in 'Du bist da droben im Palast begehrt' (Moderato: Gemessen) ['Thou hast thy calling to some palace-floor'], and she seizes the opportunity dazzlingly, applying vocal colors with the imagination of a singing Chagall. Gladdened should be the soul of the object of Fleming's musical thoughts in 'Ich denk an dich' (Andante) ['I think of thee!'], expressed with the wide-eyed passion that radiated from her singing of Massenet's Manon. The final Sonnet, 'Mir scheint, das Angesicht der Welt verging in einem andern' (Sehr langsam, zögernd) ['My poet, thou canst touch on all the notes'], emerges as an artistic credo as well-defined as Tosca's 'Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore,' a mission statement of the muse's commitment to the divine instrument of invention. Fleming sings Rilke's words with affection that gives Barrett Browning's dulcet ardor flight. Alongside Fleming, the slight reservations about the quartet's playing of Berg's Lyrische Suite are marginalized in their well-balanced performances of Wellesz's Sonette.
Though she has excelled in the late-Romantic works of Richard Strauss and Maurice Ravel, as well as scintillating music composed specially for her by Henri Dutilleux, the music of Berg and Wellesz—and Eric Zeisl, an arrangement for soprano and string quartet by J. Peter Koene of whose wondrous setting of the chorale 'Komm, süßer Todd' ends this recital with a golden shimmer—seems unlikely territory for Fleming, but this disc illustrates how ill-conceived assumptions can be. This disc in fact preserves some of the best singing of Fleming's career before studio microphones to date. With the exception of her still-astounding portrayal of the title rôle in Dvořák's Rusalka at the Metropolitan Opera in the 2013 – 2014 Season, many of Fleming's operatic performances in recent years have promised greater enjoyment than they provided. Her singing of Berg, Wellesz, and Zeisl on this disc, expertly recorded and produced by DECCA, offers evidence to silence pessimists and naysayers. however. Partnering the Emerson String Quartet in searing, searching performances, she expands her artistry at a time in her career at which many singers are content to coast on safe, tired interpretations of over-familiar repertory. This disc is a return of Renée Fleming at her incomparable best.