Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht Op.4 (1899, arr. Eduard Steuermann, 1932)
Kammersymphonie Op.9 (1906, arr. Anton Webern,1923)
Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Piano Sonata in B minor Op.1 (1908?,  arr. Tim Mulleman)
Adagio aus dem Kammerkonzert (1923-25, arr. composer, 1935)
Het Collectief
rec. 2020/21, De Bijloke Gent, Concertgebouw Brugge, Desingel Antwerpen, Belgium
Alpha Classics 867 [73]

This is well-planned, well-played, well-recorded and interesting disc from Alpha Classics.  The Het Collectief is a group of five musicians from Belgium who will be celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2023.  According to the liner they specialise in music of the 2nd Viennese School as well as exploring repertoire ranging from contemporary to ancient.  The instrumental line-up is quite unusual; piano, violin, cello, flute and clarinet and different combinations of these instruments are deployed across the disc.

All of the works offered are arrangements of the originals and as such could be considered the “transfigurations” that gives the disc its name.  The longest work and the one most familiar in this arranged version is Arnold Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht Op.4 arranged by Eduard Steuermann for piano trio in 1932.  A quick scan of the catalogue suggests at least seven other versions have been recorded over the years although I do not know how many of those remain in the current catalogue.  My first encounter with the piano trio arrangement was on a disc I reviewed here back in 2014 which was given recommended status and also featured as one of my “Recordings of the Year”.  For a more detailed discussion of how Steuermann negotiates the tricky accommodation of lush string textures in the trio medium I would direct readers towards my earlier review.  As with all of the music on this disc The Het Collectief play with unflinching technical address which is very impressive.  Their interpretative approach is somewhat unflinching too.  On the earlier disc the Dimension Piano Trio played with – for me – an ideal combination of technical brilliance allied to expressive freedom.  Their performance gave the work an expressionist intensity where the Het Collectief opt for a modernist objectivity.  Overall timings give some indication of this – the earlier performance runs 29:33 compared to the new one’s 27:39. [for reference the famously super-opulent version by Karajan in Berlin timed at 29:51].  Of course there is a performing logic to the Collectief’s approach given that this is part of a programme wholly focussed on music by the 2nd Viennese School.  So in that sense emphasising the ‘Modern’ elements of the score over the ‘Romantic’ underlines the continuity of development in this school of musical theory.  In isolation, I return to the Dimension Trio’s performance with as much awe and admiration as I felt in 2014 – to my mind that is one of the great performances of this work regardless of the instrumental format used.  By that measure I admire this new recording too but do not love it as I do the other.

As the liner makes clear, Schönberg felt misunderstood and effectively isolated within the composing community.  No wonder then that he drew a small circle of pupils and colleagues around him who shared and respected his musical goals.  Part of this is reflected in the way Anton Webern made a transcription of his Kammersymphonie Op.9 in 1923.  Webern reduced the already smallish group of fifteen players down to just five so requiring the complete Collectief for this performance.  The original work is dauntingly complex and demanding and it is quite remarkable how successfully Webern compresses the musical argument ensuring even greater clarity of line without losing overall expressive impact.  The liner note refers to this piece as; “a work that exudes the white-hot passions of high Romanticism but is also experimental in almost every way.”  The traditional four movements of symphonic form are compressed into a continuous twenty minute time frame – sensibly Alpha Classics give the work five separate tracks.  The significance of the work and the brilliance of the arrangement has ensured that this version has also had several recordings over the years.  The other version I know comes from the Linos Ensemble on Capriccio as part of their Verein für Musikalischer Privataufführungen series [available as a single disc or as part of an eight disc collection].  This was named after the private association formed by Schönberg to promote performances of modern works although the Webern arrangement was made after the dissolution of the association.  The arrangement shares the same instrumentation as Pierrot Lunaire and was made to allow the two works to be performed together.  The original work was written in 1906 and is by any measure a genuinely remarkable piece.  Again the Het Collectief favour an approach that emphasises the modernism of the work with the technical recording of both this and Verklärte Nacht promoting clarity over tonal warmth.  Certainly in terms of allowing the listener to hear the detail of the inner polyphonic writing this is a considerable benefit although again it comes at the expense of some of the expressive range of the work.  With familiarity I find myself leaning toward the Linos performance although this preference is less marked than in the other Schönberg work.

The disc is completed by two arrangements of music by Alban Berg.  The first of these is the Piano Sonata in B minor Op.1 arranged by the young Belgium composer Tim Mulleman.  He also uses all five players of the Het Collectief.  Interestingly this same work recently received the full orchestral treatment on a Chandos disc orchestrated by Andrew Davis and warmly reviewed on this site here.  I have not heard that version although I do know the orchestration by Theo Vereby that formed the coupling to Riccardo Chailly’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No.1 with the Concertgebouw on Decca. The liner points out that Berg was directly influenced by the Kammersymphonie Op.9 as Schönberg was composing that work while giving lessons to the younger man.  To my ignorant ear this new transcription sounds wholly effective and impressive in both conception and execution.  It does make me curious to hear the keyboard original which I do not know since so many of the lines seem to require the sustained lyrical support that a wind or string instrument can bring that a percussive keyboard alone will struggle to emulate.   As with all of the music on the disc this reveals itself to be an immaculately well-prepared and deeply considered performance – for me this was probably the highlight of the disc.  Mulleman’s arrangement strikes me as brilliantly achieved.  If I rather guiltily enjoy the sheer voluptuousness of Verby and the Concertgebouw that takes nothing away from the skill and sophistication of this new arrangement.

Berg himself made the arrangement of the Adagio aus dem Kammerkonzert for violin clarinet and piano.  The original work was scored for violin, piano and thirteen wind and is ferociously hard and complex.  An immediate effect of the trio arrangement is that the work sounds more intimate and inward looking.  Again the Het Collectief seek to emphasise the objective elements of the score – compare violinist Wibert Aerts’ floated yet poised tone to the more overt expressivity of Reiko Watanabe with Giuseppe Sinopoli and the Dresden Staatskapelle on Teldec.  Both versions in their very different instrumental contexts work well – Berg’s reduction of his own original is quite brilliant and the players of the Het Collectief give an intensely intimate performance.

The disc is generously filled and presented in the now-common cardboard digi-pak format with the gatefold opening out to contain the disc tucked into the right hand sleeve with the brief tri-lingual liner note in the left.  Interestingly the original Richard Dehmel poem that inspired Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht has been included.  As mentioned at the outset this is a well-played and well-planned recital of endlessly impressive music.  At the distance of over a century it remains challenging music for both listeners and performers but this disc with its unique combination of works is warmly welcomed.

Nick Barnard

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Toon Fret (flute), Julien Hervé (clarinet), Wibert Aerts (violin), Martijn Vink (cello), Thomas Dieltjens (piano)