Schoenberg in Beethoven's clothing: The title "Ferne Geliebte" and the alphabetical listing of composers Beethoven | Berg | Haydn | Schoenberg are clever tricks by the marketing wizards at Sony to make you think you are grabbing something innocuously beautiful, with a smattering of ear-stretching 'Second Viennese School'. What you are really getting here is a recording of Schoenberg's "The Book of Hanging Gardens", based on the Stefan George cycle of poems with lovely, more easily digestible musical garnish. Something that, Gerhaher or not, wouldn't sell all that well.
Don't hold it against them: They are making you grab something truly sublime, even if they do it with a hint of trickery. Never mind that the Beethoven -- his two best works in Lied, "An die ferne Geliebte" and "Adelaide" -- are as exemplary as you'd expect them, if you have come to appreciate the natural, touchingly normal, un-strained, truly artless style of Gerhaher's voice, and that the late-romantic seven Berg songs are stupendous. It is the piano-and-voice duet of Schoenberg that is so profoundly moving. "Despite" its 12-tone musical heritage. Hesitancy from a position of conviction, tenderness with the potential of great force and power, looming clouds of doubts and anguish: Gerhaher's garden, apart from greens and bright orange, is not just fifty, but easily a hundred shades of gray.
In an interview ["Christian Gerhaher, Othmar Schoeck - A Love Story"]Gerhaher said the following about the poems and Schoenberg's setting:
"That's partly the trouble with all these borderline romantics... think Reger or Pfitzner: when you first lunge at it, there's a lot of enthusiasm present... but after some scrutiny there remains less substance - for me personally - than one would like there to be left. It ends up not having quite the profundity nor - this something I love so much about the Notturno [by O.Schoeck] - this cyclical character. That's the thing that you don't find anywhere else. True, great cycles of that sort don't exist anymore, anyway... Of genuine cycles that have a proper cyclical conception, that can sustain their idea and sustain the tension, there are soooo few around. I can only find a couple. They have to be a little longer than just a quarter hour, of course. I think a true, interesting cycle starts at around 20, 25 minutes. There are the William Blake songs of Britten, of course, which I sing with great enthusiasm, and they're about fifteen minutes long and great... but that's just short of the threshold of pain... but that's precisely what it has to go beyond.
That's why I think Schoenberg's Book of Hanging Gardens, about which Adorno said that it intends to seduce one to the cause of new music, is one of the last great, truly great and important cycles. And that's leaving aside the fact that the love story - or rather: not-love story - it tells is so incredibly fascinating. And Stefan George, who is my far-and-away favorite poet (or at least the poet I can most relate to), depicts it in such a stirring and aptly poignant way. That the homosexual George of all people, surrounded by a largely male - though not necessary homosexual - circle of friends, could fall in love with a woman; a woman who, on top of everything else, found him repulsive... With this unbelievable idea of him having fallen in love with a woman in the first place, George was sort of simultaneously offended and puzzled by himself - and, crowning that, being turned down... that's one or two levels removed from your average love story. It's fascinating and unbelievably well depicted in these 15 songs. This parallel story of not being able to sort things out and how in the end it gets infused with true peace: Fascinating indeed!"
For all the just enthusiasm: Gerhaher's or mine or any lover's of Schoenberg's cycle, this still isn't music for everyone. But everyone with open enough ears to appreciate the Berg Violin concerto, for example, will find an endless supply of delightful subtleties and shadows in this recital. There can't be enough Kudos given to Sony for making this Gerhaher's debut on the main label (after working his way up from Arte Nova via RCA).
Edit: This is a CD-R "on demand"? Did Sony perhaps not bother releasing this internationally? Be sure to ask a second-seller before purchasing, whether you are getting an import or a re-printed CD-R.