Thursday, June 25, 2015

Zvi Plesser and Jonathan Keren join the Carmel Quartet to discuss and perform Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night"

The Carmel Quartet concluded its 2014-2015 “Strings and More” series with “Transfiguration”, an explained concert on the subject of Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night”. This writer attended the event at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem, on June 23rd 2015.

Founded in 1999 in Jerusalem, the Carmel Quartet plays a wide range of repertoire, Israeli works included, performing throughout Israel, in Europe, the USA and further afield. The quartet made its Carnegie Hall debut in 2004. In 2013, the Carmel Quartet made its first tour of China, performing in the Forbidden City. For “Transfiguration”, quartet members violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Raikhlin, violist Yoel Greenberg and ‘cellist Tami Waterman were joined by guest artists Zvi Plesser-‘cello and Jonathan Keren - viola for the performance of the Schoenberg work. “Strings and More”, with each concert/lecture presented three times in Hebrew and once in English, is directed by Dr. Yoel Greenberg.

The evening opened with a few moments of a recording of Schoenberg’s massive cantata “Gurre-Lieder”, its lush, lyrical, late-Romantic sounds reminding the listener of Schoenberg’s early compositional style. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) composed “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night) Op. 4, a string sextet in one movement, in 1899. The tone poem takes its inspiration from- and is based on Richard Dehmel’s mystical poem of the same name. The poem describes a man and woman in love walking through the woods on a moonlit night. Ashamed, she reveals she is pregnant with another man’s child, a man she had never loved. The man walking with her responds with loving acceptance of her, accepting the child as his own. The unborn child, the woman and man and the night itself are transfigured from darkness into light. To introduce the audience to the still largely but not exclusively tonal early language of the composer who was to become the “bad boy” of modern atonal music, we were shown “Science and Charity”, the disturbingly realistic oil picture painted by the 15-year-old Picasso. Yet, according to musicologist Yoel Greenberg, despite its mostly conventional Romantic style, “Transfigured Night”, so well liked in today’s concert halls, met with quite some disapproval from the public when first performed. At that time, Schoenberg was already claiming that the triad was to be seen as an “effect”, despite the fact that “Transfigured Night” is bristling with triads in Brahmsian profusion. So why did critics and the concert-going public of Schoenberg’s time give the work a poor reception? People found it hard to accept the coupling of Dehmel’s text with the chamber medium, the most abstract musical setting of all, and there was much discussion as to whether the music reflected the text and whether it was a programmatic work or not. For Schoenberg, the concept was what was important; his argument was that different listeners had different demands on music. Despite his description of how each part of the work connected in parallel with the poem, he was, in fact, against having the poem itself printed with the music. His publisher, however, insisted on including it; Dehmel was, after all, a popular poet of the time. Greenberg talked of the leitmotifs threaded through the work, representing various elements of the poem: the slow march representing the two people walking through the forest, the moonlit night, that of the panicked woman and the man calming her, the unsettled music accompanying the woman’s confession of being pregnant from another man, that of her sense of loneliness, then the lullaby associated with the idea of pregnancy and the secure, optimistic message of transformation. These motifs appear up to the middle of the work, after which stage they receive more abstract treatment.

Yoel Greenberg spoke of the fact that that Schoenberg was an Expressionist composer, with the subjective, emotional aspect of his music ever at the forefront, also in the composer’s later, most avant-garde works. There was no mistaking this emphasis when Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” appeared on the screen. This was followed by two self-portraits by Schoenberg, whose paintings had been considered of a high enough quality to be exhibited alongside those of Kandinsky and Franz Marc, fellow members of the Blue Rider group. The second of Schoenberg’s self-portraits to be shown, that of 1910, a haunting reminder of that traumatic period of the composer’s life, is no less troubling than that of Munch. Also very interesting were Greenberg’s references to other art forms integrating the music and influenced by the mystical, psychological, erotic and fatalistic elements of the work: in literature, Israeli writer Nathan Shaham’s novel “The Rosendorf Quartet”; in cinema, Claude Chabrol’s “The Swindle”, Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Lumière and Company” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “New Wave” (1990.

A born storyteller, Greenberg has much interesting information up his sleeve, as he addresses his audience in an engaging, easygoing and humorous manner. Adding to this, the women members of the Carmel Quartet, all of whom have some theatrical training, presented the audience with some very charming vignettes – one in which two ladies of Schoenberg’s time read and discuss critiques of the work and one depicting Schoenberg in Hollywood, stubbornly making his own conditions and demands when offered the opportunity to write film music… this never eventuating. There was also a poignant and beguiling reading of a Hebrew translation of the Dehmel poem by all six musicians. Following the intermission, we were presented with a riveting, intense and subtle reading of Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night”, from its first dark and dejected utterances, through fraught, full-blown sonority, via the work’s longing, introspection and intimacy, up to the silvery filigree sounds depicting moonlight and its associations, sounds that were almost visual in their radiance and delicacy. Led securely by first violinist Rachel Ringelstein, here was a performance of fine collaboration, still allowing for plenty of individual expression.

This was violinist Lia Raikhlin’s farewell performance with the Carmel Quartet. Yonah Zur will take her place as of the 2015-2016 concert season.

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