> Alban Berg - Complete Chamber Music [TH]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Complete Chamber Music

String Quartet Op.3 (1909-10)
Hier ist Friede Op.4 (1912) arranged for piano, harmonium, violin and cello by Alban Berg (1917)
Four Pieces Op.5 (1913) arranged for viola and piano by Henk Guittart (1992)
Adagio (1923-25) from Chamber Concerto, arranged for violin, clarinet and piano by Alban Berg (1935)
Lyric Suite (1925-26)
Schoenberg Quartet with Pierre Woudeberg (clarinet), Bob Zimmerman (harmonium)
Sepp Grotenhuis (piano)
Rec 2000
CHANDOS CHAN 9999 [75.52]


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This is a most useful collection. The most important items (and, in fact, the only truly ‘genuine’ chamber works) are the String Quartet and Lyric Suite. The others are arrangements of more than passing interest (at least the ones by Berg himself) but it is probably the two big works that will interest collectors most.

The Schoenberg Quartet’s stiffest competition comes from the eponymously named Alban Berg Quartet, who have recorded both pieces twice for EMI. The earlier, 1970s performance is now on a mid-price disc, generously coupled with quartets by Webern and Urbanner. The later (and arguably more intense) digital version is the benchmark disc in these works, but now seems short measure at 47 minutes. There is no doubting the Berg’s intensity and sheer high-powered virtuosity in these difficult pieces, and the Schoenbergs are only partially successful in conveying the overheated emotion that runs throughout many passages. But they make their own case with playing of particular delicacy and expressive eloquence. The Op. 3 Quartet is played with a real feeling for its inherent contrapuntal complexity – this was the last piece Berg completed under the watchful eye of Schoenberg, whose principle of ‘developing variation’ Berg was trying to implement. The marvellous overlapping phrases are elegantly executed (try 1.06 into the first movement) but the big climaxes (such as 4.58) are a shade under-powered when compared to the Alban Bergs. The second movement, which has many traits of the mature Berg to come, is nicely despatched, the ghostly sul ponticello passages being particularly successful.

The Lyric Suite is an unquestionable masterpiece, and the performance here has the same strengths and disappointments as above. The flautando passage at 2.54 into the first movement is played at a true ppp, but ensemble at 6.03 is slightly scrappy. The fifth movement really tests sonority and technique, but they play very atmospherically in the amazingly daring passage at 0.58. The last movement’s outpouring of love, with its overt Wagner overtones (complete with Tristan quote at 3.27) is generally successful and enjoyable, and it is really only the last ounce of excitement and intensity that is missing.

The remainder of the disc is made up of arrangements, some of which are more interesting than others. There doesn’t seem to be much point in an instrumental version of Hier ist Friede, the fifth of the Altenberg Lieder, when the original is so perfect, especially when heard in its proper sequence. Berg made this arrangement as a gift for Alma and Anne Mahler, and he obviously thought it could stand on its own (Chandos even print the text) but it’s no match for the original. The Four Pieces Op. 5 are, of course, the exquisite Webernian miniatures for clarinet and piano, here arranged by the Schoenberg’s viola player, Henk Guittart. This seems slightly bizarre, considering an excellent clarinet player was on hand for the Chamber Concerto Adagio, and in any case it is only partially successful in conveying the mood of the original. I like Berg’s own ingenious arrangement of the Adagio, where the clarinet alone takes the place of the 13 wind instruments of the original; textures are clear, complicated polyphony unforced, and generally this beautifully played 13-minute movement is a gem.

The typically reverberant but spacious recording is warm and clear, with intimacy not sacrificed. Concise but very helpful notes are by the leading Berg authority Douglas Jarman. Enthusiasts will probably already have the main works, but this disc, with its quirky little fillers, is certainly not without merit.

Tony Haywood

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