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The sublime and the non-existent,
This review is from: Schubert: String Quintet - Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht (Audio CD)
The fact that this is marketed as a Janine Jansen album might seem both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand we have here a performance featuring one of the world's finest violinists, whilst on the other we're conscious that this is a collection of top-flight soloists in the main, rather than a full-time dedicated chamber unit. You might regard the album cover and speculate as to whether the works will cohere convincingly as ensemble pieces...
Verklärte Nacht was written on the tail-end of the nineteenth century, and was Arnold Schoenberg's first important work. From the beginning it caused controversy. Inspired by Wagner's ventures into the territories of harmonic dissolution, it was rejected by the Vienna Music Society for containing a 'non-existent' chord; an inverted ninth, which up until then was uncategorised (and therefore couldn't exist). In contrast to Schoenberg's later output it's lyrical and tonally stable, though exquisitely chromatic.
The colours which the string players find here graphically reflect the moonlit walk of the lovers in the poem; one can almost visualise the silvery lightness of the moon above, while at their feet all is shadowy darkness. Beneath the surface, a febrile energy intensifies the mood of this programmatic music, which speaks of a couple's acceptance of a pregnancy conceived outside of their relationship.
Schubert's great String Quintet was finished only two months before the composer's death in 1828, but had to wait until 1853 to find a publisher. Though today it's recognised as one of the great chamber ensemble works, this didn't seem to be the case at Schubert's death, when he was regarded more highly for his songs. The instrumentation was unusual for having doubled cellos, rather than two violas as had more normally been the case in a quintet set-up.
In this recording the interplay appears to be almost telepathic, the dynamic shading changing with a quicksilver rapidity. Every note seems charged with a sparking electrical current, and at first hearing the resulting volatility can be quite disconcerting; it's often edge-of-the-seat stuff. The suspense which the players generate in the Adagio is spine-tingling, so finely nuanced is the phrasing in the build to the climaxes. Perhaps surprisingly, it's the viola which really comes to the fore here, evolving and advancing a layer which is all too rarely heard.
The synthesis which Jansen and her friends achieve in these performances gradually melt away any possible resistance which one might have had to this as being simply a marketing ploy on the part of the record company, rather than a recording of intrinsic musical value. As it happens, Jansen is very much a committed chamber player, and this disc marks the tenth anniversary of her International Chamber Music Festival in Utrecht.
This is an album which rewards repeated listening, but that really shouldn't present a problem. In fact, I defy you not to put the CD right back to the beginning after you've heard it for the first time.