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Interview, Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective - Transfigured

Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective - 'Transfigured' album coverSchoenberg's Verklärte Nacht has deservedly entered the repertoire of both chamber ensembles and string orchestras; the chamber works of Zemlinsky and Webern, coming from roughly the same era and embodying a similar white-hot musical intensity, are also reasonably well-known.

But one contemporary of theirs whose reputation has been unfairly stifled is Alma Mahler (née Schindler), who cultivated a striking style that was particularly influenced by Zemlinsky but was forced to give up on composition completely by Gustav Mahler after the two married.

What Alma leaves us - her pre-marriage works - are a tantalising stub of a career, and one can only imagine what she might have achieved had Gustav not imposed his ban. These works, along with songs and chamber music by Webern and Zemlinsky, are the focus of the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective's new album Transfigured - rounded off by Schoenberg's great sextet. 

I spoke to the Collective's Artistic Director Tom Poster about some of the works on this album - about Alma, her contemporaries, and the controversial writer who seems to have acted as an inspiration for so much of the cultural activity they were all a part of.

The writer Richard Dehmel looms large on this album, as he did among the Viennese cultural scene at the time. What was it about his poetry that so fascinated contemporary composers - from Pfitzner and Strauss to Zemlinsky, Schoenberg and Webern, and of course Alma Schindler (later Mahler)?

There’s something about Dehmel’s poetry that immediately draws you in - it’s visceral, sensual, suspenseful, empathetic to the natural world, emotionally unrestrained, and charged through with erotic themes (indeed, Dehmel’s Weib und Welt - from which Verklärte Nacht's inspiration is drawn - resulted in his trial for obscenity and blasphemy in the 1890s). I think the emotional extremes of his writing, and his rebelliousness against the authorities, chimed with the expressionist direction many of his composer contemporaries were moving in; and it’s worth noting that he was as inspired by their music as they were by his poetry.

Alma Mahler, four of whose Lieder are performed here, was infamously ordered to abandon her compositional career after marrying Gustav. How much do we know about why he took such a draconian step? Was he hostile to her hyper-chromatic, Zemlinsky-esque idiom, or was it just straightforward misogyny?

Both Gustav and Alma are fascinating, complicated, troubled figures, and it isn’t always easy to discern absolute truths about their relationship - Alma destroyed all of her letters to Gustav, and falsified some of his to her. We do know that Gustav wrote to Alma telling her that “the role of composer, the worker's role, falls to me, yours is that of a loving companion and understanding partner”, and that Alma later sadly wrote, “I have been firmly taken by the arm and led away from myself. And I long to return to where I was."

Any way you look at it, it’s a depressing story, and I don’t think there’s an easy way to forgive Gustav’s misogyny or his evident need to exert his control over his brilliant, talented, attractive young wife. However, we’d rather shift a positive focus onto the small body of truly wonderful music which Alma left to the world - it’s a wonderful gift, even if we can’t help but wish she’d been able to fully pursue the compositional career she deserved.

What was behind the decision to arrange the Alma Mahler songs for string sextet? Were you influenced by Jorma Panula’s orchestrations of them from the early 2000s, or did you go purely off the original piano part?

When we were dreaming up this album, Elena’s immediate impulse was that we must include Zemlinsky’s Maiblumen blühten überall, a glorious work for the same sextet forces as Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht but with the addition of a soprano voice - so string sextets quickly became a primary focus for the album. Meanwhile, an encounter with Alma Mahler’s Laue Sommernacht during a masterclass at King’s College, London, led me to become slightly obsessed with her songs. Alma’s piano parts are exquisitely written, but sometimes their textures seem almost too big for a piano, and I felt they were crying out for a chamber arrangement, which would also bring them even closer to the world of Schoenberg and Zemlinsky (who was Alma’s first lover). I deliberately avoided studying any other adaptations during the arranging process, and went purely from the original piano part; doing so gave me even greater admiration for these miraculous songs.

The string sextet was clearly important to Schoenberg, who chose these forces for Verklärte Nacht - maybe influenced by Brahms’s two earlier examples. What does it offer that other instrumentations (quartet, quintet, string orchestra) don’t? Is it a “sweet spot” of sorts, in terms of ensemble size?

A string sextet can still achieve the sort of intimacy we associate with a string quartet (especially as Schoenberg often breaks the ensemble down into smaller groupings), but there’s also a greater richness - a lushness of texture - available, which gives a near-orchestral scope to the sound. As in Brahms’ sextets, the presence of a second cello liberates the first cello to take a more melodic role than a cellist would generally be allowed in a quartet or quintet. And for Schoenberg, whose writing is bursting at the seams with motion and invention, it feels like fewer than six instruments wouldn’t have been enough for his extraordinary vision.

Both the Dehmel poem on which Verklärte Nacht is based and the piece’s musical language itself have perhaps lost some of their power to shock over the past century or so. When you come to perform the piece, do you still try to approach it as being radically experimental, or does that just not work in today’s world?

The fact that Schoenberg’s music, including his early Verklärte Nacht (written in 1899), is still considered ‘modern’ by many concertgoers shows that it really hasn’t lost its capacity to shock or captivate us. It’s always particularly wonderful to see how moved listeners can be hearing this music for the first time, often having previously feared it might not be their thing.

As a pianist (and therefore not a performing participant in the string sextet line-up), I have experienced the work as a listener on more occasions than I remember, often as the second half of a programme where I’d performed earlier in the evening. Every single time, I have been taken on a sublimely moving, transcendental journey. Watching my string-playing colleagues emerge exhaustedly from the recording studio after their intense recording sessions for this piece reminded me just how powerful the music is, and of the spell it will surely continue to cast for centuries to come.

Francesca Chiejina (soprano), Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective

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