Prelude to a Drama
Fantastic Overture, Op.15
Der ferne Klang Nachtstück
Der Schatzgräber Symphonic Interlude
CHANDOS CHAN 9797
Romantic Suite, Op.14
Das Spielwerk Prelude
Vorspiel zu einer grossen Oper
CHANDOS CHAN 9951
Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano)*
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vassily Sinaisky
Reviewed by: Tim Ashley
Reviewed: May 2002
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 9797 and CHANDOS CHAN 9951
The controversy that surrounds the music of Franz Schreker (1878-1934) began on 25 November 1909, when his Nachtstück was given its premiere in Vienna. The score, with its opalescent sonorities and extreme thematic fragmentation completely fazed its first audience and the performance ended in one of those musical riots that were seemingly prevalent at the time.
Schreker, born in Monaco to Austrian-Jewish parents, became at once notorious and extremely popular, a reputation he maintained until the early 1930s. He moved to Berlin in 1920 to take up an appointment as professor of composition at the Musikhochschule, and rapidly became one of the most frequently performed composers during the years of the Weimar Republic. He also soon became a victim of anti-Semitism, however. The object of Pfitzner’s strident lampoons as early as 1919, his works were accompanied by displays of Nazi thuggery as the party gradually gained ground in the Reichstag. In 1933, he was peremptorily dismissed from his teaching post: the resulting trauma is widely believed to have precipitated the fatal heart attack he suffered a year later.
In his lifetime performances of his pieces were largely restricted to the German-speaking world and his international reputation has only gained ground in the last two decades with the re-examination of ’forbidden music’ – the re-appraisal of those composers whose careers were destroyed by fascism. That he still remains notorious is now due less to his style than to his subject matter, however. Schreker was inherently a post Romantic, heavily influenced by Wagner and Liszt, and, most importantly, by the early music of Schoenberg, whose Gurrelieder he premiered. He wasn’t prepared to follow the Second Viennese School into atonality and serialism, however, and much of his best music seems to hover at the outer limits of tonality. This may have made him an acceptable modernist at a time when the Second Viennese School was deemed abstruse, though what ultimately made him famous were the openly erotic subjects that formed the basis of his operas.
Schreker’s Nachtstück of 1909 is effectively a digest of material from his opera Der ferne Klang, which caused an almighty scandal at its premiere in Frankfurt in 1912. The libretto, Schreker’s own, is a grand, symbolist affair, in which the mysterious ’distant sound’ of the title summons the opera’s hero, Fritz, to art (he’s a composer) and its heroine, Grete, to a career in prostitution, modelled rather heftily on that of Emile Zola’s “Nana”. Nowadays this comes over as sexist, but in 1912 there was little to compare with Schreker’s depiction of the extravagant orgies over which Grete presides, and his reputation as music’s arch-pornographer was effectively fixed for posterity. Whether or not that reputation is entirely justified is ultimately the question posed by these two discs of his orchestral music, their programmes carefully chosen to allow us to re-examine his range as a composer.
Volume One is structured round his erotic music and places the Nachtstück alongside the ’symphonic interlude’ from the opera Der Schatzgräber (the heroine is a nymphomaniac jewel-fetishist and serial-killer) and the Prelude to a Drama, which draws on a further opera, Die Gezeichneten, the heroine of which suffers from a heart condition and expires of pleasure on experiencing her first orgasm.
Broadly speaking the famous erotic sequences, heard in close succession, betray a sameness in style and methodology that you don’t necessarily notice in the context of the operas from which they derive. They employ slowly unfolding, chromatic melodies and vast, tense suspensions that suggest constant arousal by repeatedly veering away from harmonic resolution. The orchestral palette is often modelled on the opening of Gurrelieder as high, lushly divided strings swoop and swoon, and harps and tuned percussion ripple and undulate. The overall effect is one of sumptuous sexual indolence, but it wears thin after a while, and it’s something of a relief to turn to the other items on the disc, which form a sharp contrast.
The best of them is the Fantastic Overture, dating from 1904, a malign scherzo with some queasily grotesque woodwind writing that more than once reveals the influence of the Mephistopheles sections of Liszt’s Faust Symphony. Ekkehard is a symphonic poem written the previous year. The subject matter, about a monk who develops an obsession with a teenage girl entrusted to his care, is again erotic, though the tone is harsher and the sonorities abrasive. The Valse lente dates from 1908, when Schreker was briefly experimenting, not always successfully, with ballet: it’s an impressive little piece, at once charming and sinister, with some gorgeously sinuous woodwind writing.
Volume Two focuses on works in which sex is not Schreker’s primary preoccupation. The end results are nothing if not revealing. It’s this volume, however, which contains the genuine lost masterpieces in the form of the Prelude to a Grand Opera and the Fünf Gesänge for alto and chamber orchestra. The Prelude, Schreker’s last completed work, was written in 1933, after his dismissal by the Nazis, and derives from fragmentary sketches of Memnon, an opera set in ancient Egypt, that he had been contemplating since 1919. It opens as an almost deliberately kitschy piece of Orientalism, but gradually gains force as it twists into a massive march that first grips, then overwhelms and pulverises with mechanistic force. The Fünf Gesänge is an orchestration, prepared in 1922, of a song cycle for voice and piano written in 1909. As with the Prelude, there’s more than a whiff of Orientalism, since the texts derive in part from the Arabian Nights, though the subject (shades, perhaps, of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder) is withdrawal from the world into solitary contemplation of death. The score, though still tonal, reveals the influence of later Schoenberg in its step-wise, declamatory vocal line, reminiscent of The Book of the Hanging Gardens, and in its sparse instrumentation in which Schreker employs the Schoenbergian concept of Klangfarbenmelodie.
The other pieces on the disc aren’t in the same league. The Romantic Suite is an early work that revamps, not always successfully, an even earlier Intermezzo for strings, and reveals that Schreker hadn’t quite found his orchestral feet. The Prelude to Das Spielwerk, derives from one of his rare operatic flops, and aspires to a mystic modality, vaguely reminiscent of Debussy’s music for Saint Sébastien.
Taken together these two discs form an admirable summary of Schreker’s strengths and weaknesses. They are gloriously conducted by Sinaisky who gets virtuoso playing from the BBC Philharmonic throughout, while the sound is almost indecently sumptuous, though on occasion you’re aware of excessivereverberation. Katarina Karnéus, her voice heavy with world-weary exhaustion, is the outstanding soloist in the songs.