These two very well filled Chandos CDs represent
good value for money at a two-for-one price, spanning as they
do the whole of Berg's creative output from the early Piano Sonata
to his very last completed work, the Lulu Suite. There are a few
surprises and one "premiere recording", but on the whole buyers
are likely to be more interested in the famous stuff, and here
it's a mixed bag.
If we take the best known pieces first, I have
to say I feel the work that comes off best is the Violin Concerto.
It is Berg's most recorded piece, so this version is up against
very strong competition, but such is Isabelle van Keulen's rich,
seamless tone that we are drawn straight into the drama that unfolds;
from that famous open-string introduction through to Berg's glorious
treatment of Bach's "Es ist Genug", she never lets her
grip on the solo line drop and covers an enormous emotional range.
The orchestral support is good rather than inspired, and here
is where I miss a dimension in this music. My favoured version,
from Perlman/Ozawa and the Boston Symphony (DG) has a sweep and
passion that are overwhelming in places, with Berg viewed as post-Romantic
rather than proto-Modernist. Maybe the conductor Mario Venzago
isn"t quite sure which view to take, but good as the playing is,
tension sags too often for me, as at the start of Part 2, where
Ozawa launches in for dear life. But van Keulen's playing is extremely
beautiful and her phrasing impeccable, so there is much to enjoy.
The Three Orchestral Pieces really stretch
the conductor's feel for orchestral control and here again the
playing is very good but not up with the best. Hearing it against
James Levine and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG) reveals muddy textures
and climaxes that don"t have the impact they should. This is Berg's
most Mahlerian work and can seem dense and polyphonically thick
if the inner lines aren"t delineated clearly - try the second
movement, "Reigen" to see what I mean. Here Levine, Rattle
(EMI) and Abbado (DG) prove themselves masterly as against Venzago,
who merely seems adequate.
The two opera suites work quite well, which suggests
Venzago may have conducted the original stage works. The Wozzeck
Fragments are a mini symphony, well handled here, but listening
to a firm favourite, Dorati and the LSO on a famous old Mercury
disc (unavailable at present), puts us in a different league.
The brass and strings sing out gloriously, and the D minor interlude
has never climaxed so powerfully. I like the fact that Venzago
keeps the child"s voice in at the end, virtually recreating the
real opera finale.
Similarly, the Lulu Suite, far more ambitious
and at over half an hour much more like a real five-movement symphony,
has some very good playing and shaping, but Abbado and the VPO
create an altogether more decadent and sensual sound-world. Whether
it's Venzago or the recording, but important instrumental details,
such as the sleazy alto sax and bar room-style piano, are rather
cloudy in the Chandos recording, not helping the general atmosphere.
There's a worthwhile and intelligent contribution from Geraldine
McGreevy - who's also in the Wozzeck Suite - but good as she is
with the text, her higher lines are strained at the side of Julianne
Banse for Abbado.
McGreevy is much better in Der Wein,
the concert aria written for Ruzena Herlinger but secretly a love
song to Hanna Fuchs Robettin. She clearly enjoys Stefan George's
version of Baudelaire, and the sultry, Lulu-esque textures intertwine
well with the vocal line. The "premiere recording" I mentioned
above comes in the form of a version in the original French, for
which I can find no reference or provenance. Berg authority Douglas
Jarman's note doesn't enlighten us any more, so I'm really not
sure why it's here. Yes, it is interesting to hear Baudelaire's
original text, but it doesn't help that tenor Robert Murray struggles
with the tessitura and the language change means certain of Berg's
phrases have to be altered to accommodate this. All told, this
emerges as more novelty that doesn't add anything new to our understanding
of the piece.
The Piano Sonata appears here in Theo Verbey's
orchestration from 1984, which has been recorded before and become
quite popular. Though I much prefer it in its original form, Verbey
orchestrates in an idiomatic Bergian fashion, but it simply doesn't
tell us any more about the work and comes across as a stylistic
exercise which is not as well played as Chailly's Concertgebouw
version, part of those imaginative little fillers to his Decca
Mahler cycle. Similarly, the Passacaglia is no great discovery,
simply an orchestral realization of a tiny, unfinished student
Much more fun is Berg's original transcription
of the Strauss waltz Wein, Weib und Gesang!;
all the Second Viennese School composers loved arranging Strauss
works, and this one featured in an "Waltzerabend" mounted in 1921
to try to raise funds for the ill-fated Society for Private Musical
Performance and reputed to have had Schoenberg on violin, Webern
on cello and Berg playing the harmonium.
This is in general a worthwhile and comprehensive
collection, but Berg's output is not vast and the really important
works have, as I suggest above, been very satisfactorily recorded
a number of times. The recorded sound also concerns me a little,
with textures and lines too often buried or clouded in a "mush"
which isn't too much of a drawback in some pieces but is a big
problem in others. I wasn't able to sample this in SACD, so the
two channel layer may be a factor. However, taken as a whole this
is pretty good value and for a new collector of this repertoire
could be a viable option.
And a further
perspective on this set from Siebe Riedstra:-
The orchestral output of Alban Berg is limited to just two original
scores: his first orchestral outing Drei Stücke (Three
pieces) für Orchester op. 6, and his swan-song, the
Violin Concerto. Yet this well-filled double CD is labelled Alban
Berg - Orchestral works. A bit of a conundrum, but easily explained:
the other pieces recorded here are either orchestrations or extrapolations.
The first CD opens with an orchestral version
of Berg's op. 1, the Piano Sonata of 1908, the graduation piece
that marked the end of his studies with Arnold Schoenberg. The
orchestration is the work of another young composer, Dutchman
Theo Verbey (b.1953), completed in 1984, and in 1988 taken up
by Riccardo Chailly, then newly-appointed music director of the
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Decca used it as filler for Chailly's
recording of Mahlers First Symphony in 1996, but sadly this recording
has been deleted. It is good to welcome it back to the catalogue.
Verbey has done an excellent job in clarifying the rather dense
texture of the original. He employs an orchestral style that is
strictly in sync with the Orchestral Pieces op. 6 and the opera
Wozzeck. The use of typical Bergian sonorities ensures
that the music never sounds like a transcription.
Next are the Three Pieces for Orchestra op.
6, completed in 1915 and here played - as always - in the 1929
revision. Mahler had just died when Berg started on these pieces
and his presence hovers ominously. The fateful hammer-blow that
ends the third piece is an obvious reference to the finale of
the Sixth Symphony of his idol. These pieces have been recorded
many times and yet there are always new fascinating insights to
be found. A case in point: at the end of the second piece, Reigen,
in the penultimate bar, muted horns and trumpets are supposed
to enter in the pause between two clearly separated chords from
the main orchestra on a major third. In most recordings this entry
goes for naught, leaving the subsequent ascendance in thirds and
triplets, to end an octave above where they started, in a murky
way. Not here.
Le Vin, a concert aria on a text by Baudelaire,
reverts to the original setting of Stefan Georges German translation.
It was composed in 1929 and commissioned by the Czech soprano
Ruzena Herlinger. Berg was in the middle of his work on Lulu,
but could use the money. He was also in the middle of a love affair
with Hanna Fuchs, the woman who inspired the Lyrische Suite
for string quartet. As Berg was fond of using autobiographical
details in his works, this one is no exception. Both their initials,
A.B. and H.F. translate to A,B-flat (a semitone) and B,F in the
German nomenclature. B,F happens to be Alban Bergs favourite interval,
the tritone. These intervals, plus Bergs favourite number, 23,
play an important role in Der Wein. Apart from differences
originating in the language, the ending is remarkable, to say
the least. As an extra the singer - here a tenor - is given a
few more notes and ends the piece spectacularly on a high d-flat.
This holds no fears for the heroic Robert Murray, who makes a
convincing connection to Mahlers Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde.
The French text is well executed but shows that he is not a native
Next is a newly discovered apprentice piece, the
Passacaglia from 1913, left in short score and finished
by Christian von Borries. It is a symphonic fragment consisting
of a theme and eleven variations, lasting just over four minutes,
that ends in mid-air. Alas, Christian von Borries is no Theo Verbey,
and his orchestration is woefully lacking, despite some adjustments
by conductor Mario Venzago.
The first CD closes with Berg's most beloved orchestral
creation, the Violin Concerto of 1935, written in memory of Manon
Gropius, daughter of Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler-Werfel, who
died at age eighteen. Berg created this loving monument To
the memory of an Angel in the incredibly short space of four
months. It was to become his own Requiem: in August of the same
year he received an insect sting that was not properly treated
and caused his death by blood poisoning. The performance here
uses the revised edition of 1996. If you want to hear a defining
moment to recognize this edition, turn to the beginning of the
second movement. The violin solo just after the orchestral tutti
jumps two octaves, not one, without retaking the octave in the
next bar. Somehow the ottava marking went missing in the printed
score. Isabelle van Keulen is not the first one to record this
edition: Daniel Hope claimed to be the first. In 1992 however,
Thomas Zehetmair had already corrected this mistake. After the
acclaimed performance in the romantic mould of Perlman there is
now room for a leaner approach, and Isabelle van Keulen makes
an excellent case for it. She is not afraid of yielding to the
demands made by the score of so-called Haupt und Neben Stimmen
(lead and secondary voices). This is very much a performance
for the twenty-first century.
The second CD is a guaranteed showcase for soprano
Geraldine McGreevy. She stars in the two orchestral suites that
Berg himself culled from his operas Wozzeck and Lulu,
plus the concert aria Der Wein. To do all three pieces
in one sitting is a bit of derring-do, in which she succeeds admirably.
Drei Bruchstücke aus Wozzeck, three fragments from Wozzeck,
is a randomly picked selection, from a score that is crammed with
memorable moments. McGreevy has sung the role on stage and it
shows. As happens sometimes with non-native speakers, her enunciation
is impeccable, more so than with most singers to the language
born. The transition to Lulu holds no secrets for her,
although the tessitura here is much higher. For decades the recording
of these pieces has been the provenance of Antal Dorati and Helga
Pylarczyk, with the London Symphony Orchestra, providing a blood-curdling
shriek in Lulu that is not in the score - but, of course,
part of the opera. Claudio Abbado and Margaret Price gave us a
beautiful Lulu-Suite with the same orchestra on DG with
sound that deserves the description Technicolor. Performances
and sound on this new Chandos recording are sane and lucid. None
of the mad scramble that Pierre Boulez manages with the New York
Philharmonic in the Ostinato from the Lulu-Suite.
Der Wein was written as a study for Lulu,
particularly for the jazzy aspects in that score, as demonstrated
by use of the alto saxophone and piano syncopations. Recordings
of this gem are not rampant; there is the regal outing of Jessye
Norman, again with Pierre Boulez, more a read-through than a performance.
McGreevy brings youthful exuberance to this score and the alto
saxophone is a delight.
After all this, Wein, Weib und Gesang seems
a fitting conclusion. Berg wrote the arrangement when the Verein
für Musikalische Privataufführungen - you had to be
a member - was desperately lacking money. Schoenberg provided
Rosen aus dem Süden and Webern brought the Schatzwalzer.
Ein Walzerabend it was called, taking place in 1921. A year later,
the Verein closed. The performance here is only an afterthought,
and it sounds like that. One wishes that the available space would
have been allotted to Geraldine McGreevy and the Altenberg
A new slant on important repertoire in good performances and great
sound. Moreover, it sells two for the price of one, thanks to the
celebrations at Chandos. Thirty years of excellence!