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Berg: Violin Concerto; Three Pieces For Orchestra

Berg: Violin Concerto; Three Pieces For Orchestra

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Alban Berg's output proved tremendously influential in the development of music in the twentieth century. His natural ability to write lyrical melodic lines probably remained the most outstanding quality of his style. His Op. 1 Piano Sonata was the fulfilment of a task set by his teacher and peer Schoenberg to write non-vocal music. The Passacaglia, written between the sonata and World War I, was only completed in short-score, and may have been intended to form part of a larger work. Both pieces are recorded here in skillful orchestrations by Sir Andrew Davis.

The Three Orchestral Pieces were composed alongside his first great masterpiece, Wozzeck, and could be seen as a tribute to his musical hero, Mahler. The Violin Concerto, from 1935, was commissioned by the American violinist Louis Krasner, but was inspired by the premature death (from polio) of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and the architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, hence the subtitle ‘to the memory of an angel’. It proved to be one of the composer’s final works as Berg died later that year as the result of an abscess from an insect sting.

REVIEW:

The first track on this disc brings us Andrew Davis’s orchestration of Berg’s Piano Sonata. Berg wrote this accomplished piece when he was studying composition with Arnold Schoenberg. Originally meant to have had a slow movement and a finale, it ended up stand-alone. It is conceived in standard sonata-allegro form. The liner notes mention the structurally conventional fact of the repeated exposition. Harmonically, the work is very chromatic. It presents unstable key centres, whole-tone scales, with sometimes dense, often polyphonic, music. In its original incarnation, it demands a highly technical pianism. Andrew Davis explains that “its emotional and dramatic range is enormous”, and that this new orchestration needed to relate to “the sonorities of the era” – those of Mahler, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Schrecker. The result is a wonderful tapestry of sound. The mood varies from gentle to fervent, with a satisfyingly gentle conclusion. The organic nature of the sonata form seems to unfold continually, leading us on a magical, if sometimes disconcerting, journey. For my review, I listened several times to this hauntingly lovely re-creation of Berg’s early masterwork: it has suddenly become one of my favourite Berg pieces.

Berg wrote the Three Pieces for orchestra during the opening stages of the First World War. They present a frightening musical image of the unfolding horrors. It has been pointed out that they have Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for orchestra as an inspiration. Yet, they sound nothing like the elder man’s work. In fact, Mahler is the stylistic arbiter. One commentator has suggested that it is Mahler’s Eleventh Symphony, in the same way that Brahms One is Beethoven’s 10th (or is it 11th?).

The movingly beautiful Violin Concerto was the last major work that Berg composed, and one of his greatest. It was dedicated “to the memory of an angel”, the daughter of Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma and the architect Walter Gropius. Sadly, Manon died of polio at only eighteen. The work is a perfect balance of lyricism and drama. James Ehnes’s performance is magical. He tends towards optimism, which seems to bolster Berg’s contention that serial music could also be romantic. I was taken by his interpretation of this concerto and the integration of the various stylistic innovations such as the Bach chorale, the waltz-like theme and the Carinthian folk tune. The balance between the structural serialism and the more tonal moments is well managed here. There is a tenderness of tone that sings of affection but sometimes echoes despair, a tempestuous protest against life’s tragedy, and a sad, requiem-like epilogue.

Gavin Plumley’s booklet notes in English, German and French give a detailed introduction to all four works. “A note by the conductor” is a valuable extra: an essay-length appreciation of Berg’s music and an explanation of his approach to the two orchestrations. There are several photographs of the composer, the recording session, the violin soloist and the orchestra and conductor.

This is a remarkable disc. I enjoyed the two transcribed works, which genuinely add to our appreciation and understanding of Alban Berg’s earlier achievement. The performance of the two works of genius – the Three Pieces for orchestra and the Violin Concerto – are revelatory in their sympathy and understanding. It is an album that all enthusiasts of the composer must own.

-- MusicWeb International (John France)

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  • Release Specifications

    • Number of Discs: 1
    • Release Date:
    • Label: Chandos
    • UPC/Barcode: 095115527023
    • Item Number: CHSA 5270