à nos amours: Wagner; J. Strauss II, Schubert, Denza (arr. Schoenberg/Berg); Busoni

Diabolicus/Dietrich Henschel (Naïve/Ambroisie AM137)

22 September 2008 4 stars

A nos amoursThe cover of this new release from Diabolicus gives little clue as to what a fascinating and, above all, immensely enjoyable disc this is.

The group, new to me, is made up primarily of soloists from the Orchestre de Paris, and although the booklet emphasises the democratic and collaborative nature of their work, they are conducted Dietrich Henschel.

For the programme, Henschel has chosen the original version of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll as well as arrangements for small ensemble of Schubert's D.889 'Ständchen', Denza's 'Faniculì-Faniculà' and three waltzes by Johann Strauss II. All but one of the arrangmenents is by Arnold Schoenberg; Wein, Weib und Gesang is arranged by Alban Berg. A darkly sentimental postlude is provided by Erwin Stein's 1911 arrangement of Busoni's Berceuse élégiaque.

Therefore we have a selection of works all, perhaps with the exception of the Busoni, extremely well-known in different versions; ironically, the Wagner – the only work on the disc in its original configuration – is usually heard in its inflated orchestral guise.

For me the highlight of the disc, though, comes in the Strauss arrangements. Along with Berg's Wein, Weib und Gesang, we have Schoenberg's arrangements of Rosen aus dem Süden and the Kaiserwalzer. The first two were arranged, the booklet tells us, for a private performance in Vienna in May 1921; an occasion for which Schoenberg also arranged the Lagunenwalzer and Webern the Schatzwalzer. The three arrangers also took part in the performances and it's hard to imagine Webern, particularly, po-faced at the harmonium making his off-beat contributions. The slightly less imaginative Kaiserwalzer arrangement dates from a couple of years later when Schoenberg needed a companion piece for his own Pierrot Lunaire while on a concert tour in Spain.

It's impossible to listen to these economical arrangements – they literally were the result of straitened circumstances – without imagining these fragments of Viennese identity, shattered by the 'gay apocalypse' Ravel described in La valse, having being carefully and tentatively pieced back together. And the arrangements display a deep affection for these waltzes, not necessarily something one would expect from the iconoclastic founders of the Second Viennese School. They are also played with effortless charm and sophistication by Diabolicus, achieving exactly what Henschel describes in his own booklet essay: 'through this more fragile sound picture on a somewhat more slippery surface, one attains greater liberty of gesture, and as in the very act of dancing, the special atmospheric allure comes from the alternation between abandon and control.' The combination of the players' knowing performances and the sheer imagination of the arrangements is irresistible. The moments of extreme economy, in particular, prove refreshing in this all-too-familiar music. In Wein, Weib und Gesang, for example, at around the nine minute mark we're left with just sustained chords on the harmonium, a staccato bass line in the cello and a sole violin with the melody, and the effect is disarmingly beautiful.

It's also interesting, that for those arrangements using piano, there's a distinct Schubertian feel, especially when the piano plays in octaves. However, Schubert's own 'Ständchen', in Schoenberg's arrangement is turned into a real serenade, with suave trumpet singing the melody over accompaniment from guitar and mandolin (with more than a hint of Mahler's use of that instrument in his Seventh Symphony). It says a great deal for these arrangements, too, that Denza's hackneyed 'Faniculì-Faniculà' is almost made to sound as though it's cut from the same cloth as the Schubert.

There's undoubted depth of feeling in the Wagner and Busoni that complete the programme. In its original version, Siegfried-Idyll shows an aspect of Wagner's genius rarely apparent in his other works, as he manages a varied ensemble of thirteen with absolute mastery. Much of the work's detail is lost in its better-known orchestral arrangement and here, as played by Diabolicus, it sounds as fresh as it must have when first presented to Cosima on the stairs at Tribschen in 1870. Busoni's Berceuse élégiaque, the composer's moving tribute to his dead mother, is presented with the ideal balance of objective clarity and occasional emotional warmth.

All in all, then, a highly enjoyable, often moving and excellently performed disc. Ambroisie's recorded sound is wonderfully clear and natural and the booklet contains both a personal essay by Henschel and a detailed essay on the music's history. Highly recommended.

By Hugo Shirley