Transfigured Night: 1 – Two people walk
Partita No. 1 in B minor BWV 1002 – Allemande double
Debussy, arr. Kang for two violas
Clair de lune
Richard Strauss, arr. Matthew Barley for string quartet
Waldseligkeit, Op. 49 No. 1
Transfigured Night: 2 – A woman’s voice speaks
Sonata No. 1 in G minor for solo violin, BWV 1001 – Adagio
44 Duos for two violins, Sz 98 – Ruthenian Song, Cradle Song, Teasing Song, Sorrow, Ruthenian Round Dance
Transfigured Night: 3 – A man’s voice speaks
Two Improvisations, for cello, and for viola and cello
Transfigured Night: 4 – Dark gaze
String Quartet No. 2 ‘Intimate letters’ – Moderato
Transfigured Night: 5 – There’s a glow around everything
Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4, based on the poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel, in the original version for string sextet
Mullova Ensemble (Viktoria Mullova, Lisa Rieder – violins; Nils Mönkmeyer, Kinga Wojdalska – violas; Matthew Barley, Peteris Sokolovski – cellos)
Ching-Ying Chien – dancer
Matthew Barley – Director
Joshua Junker – Choreographer
Nick Hillel, Yeast Culture – Video projection
Sander Loonen – Lighting designer/technician
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 18 October, 2023
Venue: Milton Court Concert Hall, Barbican, London
For more than a century and a quarter Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’) has provided material for many a danced version of Arnold Schoenberg’s and the poet Richard Dehmel’s haunting and haunted vision of two lovers, walking through the night in a moonlit forest – she reveals she is pregnant by a man she never loved; her lover telling her their love will transcend her anguish. Schoenberg’s score outraged Vienna’s moral sense when first heard in 1896, and the work still has the mystique of one of music’s great singularities.
Whether Matthew Barley’s 80-minute multi-media staging – dance, electronics, a video projection of a moon serenely rising over the stage, improvisation, and a sequence of short pieces played by members of the Mullova Ensemble, all culminating in and presumably explaining the great epiphany of the complete Verklärte Nacht – fulfilled all expectations is another matter, mainly because this late-romantic pudding was seriously over-egged.
Jasmine Morris’s five, brief electronic pieces shadowing the main events of Dehmel’s poem unnecessarily reinforced Schoenberg’s similar but infinitely more subtle process, and if Morris’s intention had been to provide an elemental undertow, the reality was more intrusive than layered. You could argue that that the sequence of short extracts prepared the listener for elements such as spiritual isolation, nobility, suppressed passion and the darkness of humanity, although the two-viola version of Debussy’s Clair de lune seemed too sweet and innocent for Barley’s scenario, while his own equally lovely quartet arrangement of Strauss’s song Waldseligkeit (‘Forest rapture’) – a setting of another poem by Dehmel – suggested the tension in the music-words primacy, a dichotomy Schoenberg addressed with uncanny perception here in his Sextet. Points can be made all the more effective by implication. The selection of Bartók Duos, played with infectious verve by Viktoria Mullova and Lisa Rieder, were marooned as a lively contrast, while the Moderato third movement from Janáček’s ‘Intimate Letters’ Quartet No. 2, by a 64-year-old man overwhelmed by his passion for a much younger woman, left not so much to the imagination.
If Barley hedged his bets between suggestion and statement, he came down firmly of the side of the latter in the role played by the dancer Ching-Ying Chien, cast as the ‘force of love’ (Barley’s words). There is probably no bodily balancing point she doesn’t know, and she is formidably accomplished both as a contortionist and as an expressive lyricist, but her part steered us firmly towards something rhetorical and explicit, and there was a sneaking suspicion that the 80-minute sequence could have got along quite well without her. But she did raise a bit of a laugh with some Cirque du soleil cuteness in her interaction with some cello improvisation.
It was, therefore, with a mixture of relief and release that the sextet (and the moon) was alone for Schoenberg’s masterpiece, without any distraction. It was worth the wait, played by six superb musicians who clearly love and understand the piece. Solo moments emanated rather than imposed, the voicing and balance was off the scale in terms of finesse and responsiveness, Dehmel’s poem was completely honoured, and the big moment – where the man’s D major chord comforts, caresses and reassures the woman that all will be well – both earthed all the previous hysteria and developed into a satisfyingly restrained, glowing transcendence.