Classical CD Reviews

SCHOENBERG: Verklaerte Nacht; SCHUBERT: String Quintet in C Major – Janine Jansen & ens. – Decca

Two brilliantly effective works from the opposite ends of the Romantic period are rendered with fervent passion by players from the recent Utrecht Chamber Music Festival.

Published on May 16, 2013

SCHOENBERG: Verklaerte Nacht, Op. 4; SCHUBERT: String Quintet in C Major, D. 956 – Janine Jansen & Boris Brovtsyn, violins/ Amihal Grosz, viola/ Maxim Rysanov, viola/ Torleif Thedeen, cello/ Jens Peter Maintz, cello – Decca 478 3551, 83:12 [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Recorded 18-20 May 2012, the two Romantic chamber music compositions for strings realized by Janine Jansen and friends coincides with their live performance in Dortmund as part of the annual festival in Utrecht. Ms. Jansen has now been associated with the International Chamber Music Festival Utrecht for ten years.

Jansen’s approach to the 1899 “program” sextet Verklaerte Nacht (after Richard Dehmel’s poem) strikes me as exactly how Heifetz might have conceived it – as a virtuoso violin concertante piece – had he been so motivated. Given the hothouse atmosphere of the work, its post-Wagnerian harmonic language and Liszt-Schubert structural ties, the vividly contrasting affects and visceral emotions of the piece allow Jansen to cast a long wiry shadow and expressive brilliance over the entire range, her 1727 “Barrere” Stradivarius in glowing fire. The poem presents a woman who finds redemption in the absolute acceptance of a man who will claim her and her unborn child as his own, a formula not so distant from Massenet’s opera Thais, which too inverts the usual conceit of woman’s love as the antidote for a prodigal son.

Jansen and her gifted companions perform this half-hour melodrama in the rush of white heat, the tension often at breaking point. Having only just recently favorably reviewed a masterful interpretation by the Quatuor Ysaye and friends, I was not prepared to be assaulted by yet another convincing conception, although its aesthetic point of departure seems radically different. But the intense sincerity of the Jansen ensemble cannot be questioned, particularly at bars 138-175, when the woman’s self-reproach reaches a rising paroxysm of anguish, Schneller warden to the fff of the theme, only to relent or resign itself, broadly and molto ritardando, to a nameless silence. Otherwise, we might credit the wonderful transparency of sound from this talented group, its seamless rendering of the “moonlight” and “transfigured” motifs of the score, since that fifth element, love, must supply the redemptive alchemy to human suffering. The D Major “answer” of the nameless man, who feels “in harmony with the splendor and radiance of nature,” sounds perfectly authentic, a real expression of faith’s triumph over potential tragedy.

The 1828 C Major Quintet of Schubert hardly needs pronouncements concerning its emotional validity. What I like in the execution by Jansen and company is their fluid, rhythmic and harmonic alertness to the score, the fact that Schubert in his late period achieved great harmonic and dynamic freedom, changing keys and timbres every few bars. The delicate balance of two contrasting rhythms in the first movement – the cello duet and the martial, unisono theme – comes through vividly, unforced, but often with a dark, impending tension that bodes dark consequences in spite of the poet’s song. The amazing Adagio seems to stand still as its 28-bar melody first sings out; later, the dramatic thrust intro F Minor seems equally fateful in another direction. If the Adagio has its mysteries, so does the hunting-horn Scherzo, whose excursion or descent into D-flat Major for the 4/4 Trio section throws an odd weight to be found so late in the piece’s structure. Jansen and ensemble alert us to this riddle with sensuous authority. The concluding Allegretto combines laendler and Hungarian gypsy elements, the Jansen group’s dashing off the piece as a cosmic burlesque, coyly ironic in the face of “deep” mysteries. Recording engineer Julian Schwenkner has earned high marks for this dazzling coupling of noble works from opposite ends of the Romantic ethos.

—Gary Lemco




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