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Transfigured Night

Verklärte Nacht is possibly one of our favourite pieces of music ever. It was controversial when it was premiered in 1902. This was due to the highly advanced harmonic idiom as well as, perhaps, Dehmel’s explicit references to sexual themes in the poem. The work does indeed employ a richly chromatic language and often ventures far from the home key, though the work is clearly rooted in D minor. A particular point of controversy was the use of a single ‘nonexistent’ (that is, uncategorized and therefore unpermitted) inverted ninth chord, which resulted in its rejection by the Vienna Music Society. Schoenberg remarked “and thus (the work) cannot be performed since one cannot perform that which does not exist“.


Dehmel’s poem describes a man and a woman walking through a dark forest on a moonlit night, wherein the woman shares a dark secret with her new lover: she bears the child of another man. The stages of Dehmel’s poem are reflected throughout the composition, beginning with the sadness of the woman’s confession, a neutral interlude wherein the man reflects upon the confession, and a finale which reflects the man’s bright acceptance (and forgiveness) of the woman: O sieh, wie klar das Weltall schimmert! Es ist ein Glanz um Alles her (see how brightly the universe gleams! There is a radiance on everything).

Recorded in 2012, this release by Janine Jansen and friends coincides with their live performance in Dortmund as part of the annual festival in Utrecht. Ms. Jansen has now been associated with the International Chamber Music Festival Utrecht for ten years.

Jansen’s approach to the 1899 “program” sextet Verklärte Nacht (after Richard Dehmel’s poem) strikes one as exactly how Heifetz might have conceived it – as a virtuoso violin concertante piece – had he been so motivated. Given the hothouse atmosphere of the work, its post-Wagnerian harmonic language and Liszt-Schubert structural ties, the vividly contrasting affects and visceral emotions of the piece allow Jansen to cast a long wiry shadow and expressive brilliance over the entire range, her 1727 “Barrere” Stradivarius in glowing fire. The poem presents a woman who finds redemption in the absolute acceptance of a man who will claim her and her unborn child as his own, a formula not so distant from Massenet’s opera Thais, which too inverts the usual conceit of woman’s love as the antidote for a prodigal son.

Jansen and her companions perform this half-hour melodrama in the rush of white heat, the tension often at breaking point. The intense sincerity of the Jansen ensemble cannot be questioned, particularly when the woman’s self-reproach reaches a rising paroxysm of anguish, Schneller warden to the fff of the theme, only to relent or resign itself, broadly and molto ritardando, to a nameless silence. Otherwise, we might credit the wonderful transparency of sound from this talented group, its seamless rendering of the “moonlight” and “transfigured” motifs of the score, since that fifth element, love, must supply the redemptive alchemy to human suffering. The D Major “answer” of the nameless man, who feels “in harmony with the splendor and radiance of nature,” sounds perfectly authentic, a real expression of faith’s triumph over potential tragedy.