From dream to trauma

FRIDAY NIGHT LIVE

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra

Federation Concert Hall, Hobart

Friday November 6

Lana Kains

At last, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has blossomed from disbursing an endless variety of twigs and branches into presenting something very like a sturdy sapling. For the next four Fridays, the organization is in collaboration with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra to present music that features a body rather more substantial than those we have been offered so far. This opening gambit, conducted by TSO principal guest conductor Johannes Fritzsch, comprised three connected works: songs by Wagner and Zemlinsky, and Schoenberg’s ever-green Transfigured Night in its string orchestra format.

Even in the liberated social climate of Hobart, the TSO performers had to be socially distanced; so you had twenty-odd strings for the Schoenberg, all at separate desks – which made following the composer’s direction about ‘stands’ (from bar 16 on) pretty difficult to fulfil. But this can be a thickly wrought score on many pages while the programmed songs don’t ask for as much interdependence as the transformed sextet.

The TSO made a novel move by having Marta Dusseldorp preface two of the works with readings of the poems on which they were based. Before we heard the last of the Wesendonck Lieder, she gave an appropriately rhapsodic version of the lady’s Traume; and she previewed the Schoenberg with a sympathetic account of Richard Dehmel’s fraught stanzas of 1896. What she didn’t supply was any preface to the evening’s middle work which used verses that might have struck sparks of recognition from those familiar with Schumann’s Liederkreis, but for many of us would have proved less well known than Mathilde Wesendonck’s lied and Dehmel’s emotion-drenched stanzas where sorrow turns to ecstasy.

This piece was Zemlinsky’s Waldgespräch to an Eichendorff text that celebrates the legend of the Lorelei yet again. Still, as some latter-day insightful philosopher once sang, you can’t always get what you want and the composer gave the voice pride of place. Added to this, Hobart soprano Lana Kains made a pretty fair job of articulating the text cleanly and you hear enough clues in the clearer passages to give you the gist of the poet’s intentions.

Rather than over-tire Kains, Fritzsch and the TSO powers-that-be decided to eschew the vocal version of Träume and substitute one for solo violin with chamber orchestral support that the composer arranged in 1857 for a birthday performance below the poet’s bedroom window – shades of the 1870 Siegfried Idyll for wife Cosima; my, how he spread the riches around . . . eventually. On this night, the solo fell to TSO concertmaster Emma McGrath, who gave a sympathetic, stress-free account of the line after commentator Robert Gibson gave a lengthy salute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, which groups are clearly taken most seriously on the island that wiped them out.

Wagner did little but follow his own vocal line, with slight variants like leaving no break at the end of Nichts vergangen and allowing a lengthy space for the song’s high F on the last appearance of the title word. McGrath employed a finely wrought and warm vibrato where she could, as well as a deft semi-portamento at appropriate places like the 4th and 6th intervals at und dann sinken. The composer also has the soloist join in the moving final five bars, unlike the poor Frauenstimme who has to stand mute through a postlude that always seems to be longer than it is.

He was about 25 when he composed his orchestral song (strings, harp, two horns) but Zemlinsky subscribed wholeheartedly to the late Romantic ethos, employing a harmonic language that stretched not far beyond Wagner, if not as far as his brother-in-law’s sextet written three years after Waldgespräch. Like their essay at the Wesendonck work, the TSO strings faced no fears with this G minor piece, having an easy time of it up to Letter B and the singer’s second line.

But the soloist herself was hardly over-pressed, so that the sudden small intervallic jumps at Schmerz mein Herz after a series of single notes made a warm impression out of all proportion to any actuality. The upward vocal leaps at the words O flieh! came across with telling power, as the Lorelei attempts to dissuade her prey. But the performance ran both hot and cold; for example, the upper strings gave excellent service just before Letter K in their treatment of a Schoenbergian phrase or two, but their ensemble work at Letter N where the opening motif is revisited could only be seen as sloppy. Counterbalancing this was the finely-worked line from Emma McGrath across the score’s last 35 bars.

Simply for reasons of length (the final Wesendonck lied about four minutes, the Zemlinsky a bit over seven), most attention focused on the evening’s final contribution, the early Schoenberg work that never seems to have been out of favour – unlike the gnarled masterpieces of later years. Fritzsch launched this successfully with effective crosses from solo lines to tutti in the first 24 measures: an excellent instance of balancing unevenly weighted textures. But it wasn’t roses all the way: at bar 29, the first violas took over the running, yet none too clear in their definition; and the violins, because of the afore-mentioned social distancing brought into effect found blending a problem with an individual voice surging through every so often. While the violas made messy work of their three-note pattern across bars 46 to 48, the violin lines at the octave made an impressive and stirring display at the Poco piu mosso change beginning at bar 69.

With the glide into E Major – one of the work’s marvellous emotional displacements – the approach and its achievement came over as scrappy, even more so at the spelled-out violin mordents in bars 124 and 125. To their credit, the three bass lines could not be faulted to this point, although their emergence across bars 145 and 146 sounded over-emphatic. But the ensemble delivered a persuasive weltering outburst when all mutes came off at bar 169. I would have preferred more of a whip-crack approach employed for the violin’s semiquavers in the repetitions across bars 175 to 177, mainly as a relief from stolidity.

Speaking of heavy-handedness, I don’t think I’ve heard a slower reading of the penitential passage from bar 188 to 200, though things picked up for the resumption of the work’s opening motif at bar 202, greeted with plenty of punch from second violins and first cellos. An eloquent, well-proportioned attack signified the start of the Man’s reassurance at bar 209 and McGrath span an exceptionally luminous line from bar 255 during the first transfiguration sequence. Something went wrong with the fp cello harmonic that penetrates bar 251, but the rest of the fluttering wove its anticipated magic.

For the first time, I appreciated the spectral four bars of communal ponticello playing from bar 266: a startling shift in sonority, here carried off with equanimity. Later, the body gave a fine realization of Schoenberg’s hothouse freneticism beginning at bar 303, eventually driving to a powerful climacteric in the universal triple forte explosion of bar 337. Again, the course didn’t stay smooth with a messy first viola phrase at bars 344-5. But relief came quickly with a fine sheen to the group’s timbre in the dynamic breaking-down from bar 356 onward and a flawless chording (because of so many solo lines?) at bars 368-369.

From the bar 401 A tempo to the score’s conclusion, you are in a luminous sphere, luxuriating in music of incomparable beauty that you wish would go on far longer than it actually does. The TSO achieved these hushed pages with a high degree of success even if – as usual – the six pianissimo harmonics in bar 414 were not quite universally secure. But I’ve always thought they make the following D Major chord and its susurrus dissolve all the more satisfying as a leave-taking.

The players fared well in this score which presents so many difficulties, especially long sections where the writing is active and thick. They came out of the struggle with a bit of skin missing; on the other hand, they gave Fritzsch a ready response with no shying away from Schoenberg’s demands for fully-bowed enthusiasm. This piece and its predecessors made an excellent introduction to the TSO’s talent, enough to rouse interest in further Friday entertainments from Hobart.