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Out of the Box: Mendelssohn, with a twist

Image of soprano Christine Schäfer smiling
Courtesy of the Artist
Soprano Christine Schäfer"

Aribert Reimann has repackaged Mendelssohn songs for voice and piano in a brilliant, one-of-a-kind compilation.

WHAT: Christine Schäfer & the Petersen String Quartet: Aribert Reimann, “…Oder soll es Tod bedeuten?” – Mendelssohn/Schubert Song Transriptions

MUST LISTEN TRACKS: Aribert Reimann’s “…oder soll es Tod bedeuten?” after songs by Felix Mendelssohn

WHY THIS MUSIC: I love when composers and musicians come together to make interesting, thoughtful arrangements of music that has been around for a long time, both breathing new life into the old and adding their own flavor. This music, and the incredible performance by soprano Christine Schäfter and the Petersen String Quartet, is all that and more.

This week's Out of the Box segment is no longer available on-demand.  

It’s a new year, and for the first few episodes of Out of the Box, I want to have some fun with the more figurative definition of the series title. Instead of new releases, I'll focus on music that is a little unconventional.

Aribert Reimann’s “…oder soll es Tod bedeuten?” is definitely that.

Image of composer Aribert Reimann siting in profile
Credit Aldus Rietveld
Composer Aribert Reimann

I can’t recall how I came across this music. It’s possible that it was one of those random internet stumble-upon things that have become commonplace in the last 20 years, especially thanks to algorithmically curated services like Spotify and Pandora. I was hooked from the first moment I heard this music, and I bought it soon after, downloaded it to my phone, and have now listened to this work hundreds of times.

Reimann’s cycle “…oder soll es Tod bedeuten?” (roughly translated: “Or does it signify death?”, after the final line from the tenth movement) is actually largely not Reimann’s original music. The songs, of which there are ten, were all written for voice and piano by Felix Mendelssohn, with poetry by the German master Heinrich Heine serving as the lyrics. But what Reimann has done with these songs is entirely new and original. 

Firstly, "...oder soll es Tod bedeuten?" is an arrangement of those ten Mendelssohn songs for string quartet and soprano voice, which in and of itself is incredibly enjoyable music to listen to. What makes this project stand out, though, are the six intermezzi written by Reimann, which are wildly different from Mendelssohn’s original music, and which are placed between the Mendelssohn songs. 

The result is something entirely new, and undeniably cohesive. Reimann manages to pull two completely different compositional sound worlds - one lush and Romantic, the other firmly post-tonal and modern - together. Each intermezzo pulls content from the preceding Mendelssohn song and then sonically bridges it to the next one.

"...oder soll es Tod bedeuten?" is an incredibly captivating song cycle, brilliantly arranged for string quartet and voice, that challenges and engrosses the ear, and I'm sure you will be as engrossed by this brilliant work as I have been for years.   

Read a translation of the texts set by Mendelssohn and chosen by Reimann for “…oder soll es Tod bedeuten?”.

You can hear Out of the Box on 99.5 WCRB on Sunday night's, following WCRB In Concert.

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.