Berg: Violin Concerto; Three Orchestral Pieces. © 2022 Chandos Records Ltd

CD Spotlight

Fascinating Listening

Music by Alban Berg, recommended by GEOFF PEARCE

'... the BBC Symphony Orchestra is on top form ...'


When I was a student, the music of the Second Viennese School was highly regarded and I got to hear and study quite a lot of it. I think the composer of this school I liked best at the time was Alban Berg, because I was impressed with how he could write beautiful lyrical lines, even within a constrained environment. I became familiar with some of his early songs, the Violin Concerto, the opera Wozzeck and the Three Orchestral Pieces. So I was quite pleased to be able to review this disc.

The opening work on this recording is the single movement Piano Sonata in B minor, Op 1 (composed 1907-08). It has been orchestrated by Sir Andrew Davis. It was written whilst Berg was studying with Arnold Schoenberg, as an exercise for Berg to write for something other than voice. The tonality and mood shift around a lot, and it reminds me of the world of Schoenberg at about the time he wrote the Chamber Symphony No 1 Op 9, and in fact was composed at about the same time. I have not heard this work as a piano sonata, but Davis has really orchestrated this beautifully, and with the sort of palette that the composer probably would have used. This beautiful work is not at all austere or difficult to listen to, even though the tonality is restless.

Listen — Berg, orchestrated by Davis: Piano Sonata in B minor
(CHSA 5270 track 1, 7:38-8:19) ℗ 2022 Chandos Records Ltd :

The Passacaglia (1913), consisting of a theme and eleven variations, was only written in short score, so Andrew Davis has skilfully orchestrated it. The work is not long, at under five minutes, but is closer to the mature Berg style that we are perhaps more used to, than the Sonata, but it is still lush, lyrical and tonality as such has not totally been discarded.

Listen — Berg, orchestrated by Davis: Passacaglia
(CHSA 5270 track 2, 1:58-2:51) ℗ 2022 Chandos Records Ltd :

This is followed by Three Orchestral Pieces Op 6, originally composed in 1914-15, but revised in 1929. They are dedicated to Schoenberg, and are in Berg's mature style. The orchestrations of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg are somewhat similar, and I think this is to give the textures a certain clarity that might otherwise be obscured. These pieces are very atmospheric, sometimes delicately beautiful, sometimes menacing, but always beautifully lyrical. At different times one has waltzes, rather grotesque marches, snatches of popular tunes and very often one can detect the influences of Gustav Mahler and also Franz Schrecker. All this makes fascinating listening.

Listen — Berg: Marsch (Three Orchestral Pieces Op 6)
(CHSA 5270 track 5, 2:41-3:35) ℗ 2022 Chandos Records Ltd :

The disc concludes with the Violin Concerto (1935), carrying the inscription 'To The Memory of an Angel', to commemorate the death of Manon Gropius, the teenage daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius. One of Berg's last works, as he died the same year, aged fifty, this is one of the great violin concertos, and I can still remember the impact it had on me when I first heard it performed. It is in two movements, and is hauntingly beautiful in places, with a lyricism that is typically Berg, but there are also, at times, very difficult passages for the soloist, and the work is not without its dark and stormy moments. Whilst it utilises serial techniques, Berg also writes in a freer, more tonal style in some passages. There are strong references to Bach in a few places, by employing a musical characterisation of the word Bach - B flat, A, C, B natural - but also, more famously, a chorale tune that Bach used in one of his cantatas is quoted with the harmonisation in the clarinets.

Listen — Berg: Allegro - Adagio - Coda (Violin Concerto)
(CHSA 5270 track 7, 8:21-9:19) ℗ 2022 Chandos Records Ltd :

James Ehnes' performance is a more romantic rendition than some that I have heard, but I think that this plays to the character and strength of this work, and it will be a recording I will often return to.

There is much to like about this recording, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra is on top form, supported by a truly admirable conductor who is also a very skilful arranger, a magnificent soloist and a choice of pieces that represent Alban Berg's development as a composer. The notes accompanying the disc are short but informative, and do not go into analysis. The hybrid SACD recording quality is excellent, and the disc would be a very worthwhile addition to any collection ... this is too good to pass up.

Copyright © 20 September 2022 Geoff Pearce,
Sydney, Australia








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