The Emerson String Quartet and Renée Fleming Perform Berg and Wellesz

Berg's Lyric Suite and Wellesz's Sonette der Elisabeth Barrett Browning

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COMPOSERS: Berg,Wellesz
LABELS: Decca
ALBUM TITLE: The Emerson String Quartet and Renée Fleming Perform Berg and Wellesz
WORKS: Berg: Lyric Suite; Wellesz: Sonette der Elisabeth Barrett Browning
PERFORMER: Renée Fleming (soprano); Emerson String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 478 8399

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Although composed nearly 90 years ago, Berg’s Lyric Suite still sounds like an astonishingly modern score with a capacity to startle even those who are perfectly attuned to the more avant-garde sonorities of the later 20th century. Yet any complexity in Berg’s harmonic idiom remains subservient to the directness of his emotional message, in this particular case, one that charts the trials and tribulations of his secret love affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin.

The almost operatic narrative, moving from joy and ecstasy to torpor and despair in the final Largo desolato, is projected here with tremendous urgency by the Emerson Quartet. Particularly admirable is their brilliance and accuracy in the formidable semiquaver passagework that opens the third movement, and their careful balancing of the musical line in the more intricate textures of the ensuing Adagio appassionato.

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The Emersons supplement their outstanding Lyric Suite with a sensitive account of the last movement in an arrangement for voice and string quartet. It’s a setting of a poem by Baudelaire which was inscribed in a copy of the published score that the composer sent to his mistress in order to explain the hidden programmatic subtext of the work. As the vocal line is embedded in the pre-existing string parts, Renée Fleming delivers the evocative text in a deliberately subdued manner. In contrast, she opens up a much greater range of colours and emotions in Wellesz’s Sonette der Elisabeth Barrett Browning. This fascinating cycle, dating from 1934, is imbued with a similar level of expressionist angst as the Berg, but Wellesz does not go as far as his contemporary in repudiating conventional tonality. Erik Levi