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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Lyric Suite (1926)
Dawn Upshaw (soprano)
Kronos Quartet
Recorded May 20-24, 2001 at Skywalker Ranch, Nicasio, CA
NONESUCH 7559 79696 2 [27’15]

This is one of a small, enterprising group of CD singles from Nonesuch. Of course there is no shortage of Lyric Suites in the catalogue, but the real reason for this release is pretty obvious from the title above, where we have the addition of a soprano to the usual string quartet.

I well remember the intense interest surrounding leading Berg authority George Perle’s discovery of an annotated score of the Lyric Suite around 1977. In a subsequent BBC documentary entitled ‘The Secret Life of Alban Berg’ (which I still have on video) he elucidated the real value of this discovery. Berg had always intended his finale to have a vocal dimension, but had decided to suppress it on the grounds that it aped rather too closely his teacher Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, with its two vocal movements ‘Litany’ and ‘Transport’. These are both settings of poems by Stephan George. Berg had also intended to use George’s work, in fact his translation of Baudelaire’s ‘De profundis clamavi’. One can understand Berg’s reluctance to be too closely compared to his idol, but Perle’s annotated score revealed a whole new reason for the suppression. The score is littered throughout with secret encodings (alphabetical and numerical) of his love for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, wife of a wealthy Prague industrialist and supporter of Berg. The affair was apparently unconsummated, and this secretly annotated score was the first real evidence of Berg’s true feelings. It was only a matter of time before a recording was made, and it has been worth the wait.

I suppose we have to examine the Kronos’s performance of the first five movements before tackling the ‘new’ bit, and they certainly throw themselves into the tortured world of Bergian angst with customary zeal. The opening Allegretto gioviale is jovial in a typically intense, Viennese fin-de-siècle way, with those scrunching harmonies and hints of Mahlerian march rhythms clearly and concisely articulated. In fact, overall this playing is phenomenally accurate, if a little on the cool side. The second movement’s amoroso marking is not as keenly felt as in the famous reading by the eponymous Alban Berg Quartet (EMI), but the delicious hints of Viennese waltz are beautifully pointed without being over-obvious. The next three movements, marked with increasing feverishness by Berg Allegro misterioso, Adagio appassionato and Presto delirando, show the Kronos to be on the top of their form. The percussive nature of the fifth movement particularly suits their talents, and emerges sounding amazingly close to Bartók.

The work’s finale reaches new heights of desperation and is marked, appropriately enough, Largo desolato. There is no question that when the soprano enter (around 1’15) the parallel with Schoenberg is unmistakable. Throughout the piece Berg scholars have found text links with Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony (from which Berg gets his title) but when the Baudelaire words are sung above the tense, chromatic harmonies, the composer’s true feelings are fully revealed. The famous Tristan chord quote (2’56) has always intrigued me, but the words that now accompany it tell the true story. ‘There is not even a stream, nor a tree, neither field nor flock’ intones the soprano, and this could be a virtual quotation from Act 3 of Wagner’s opera, where the feverish, wounded Tristan lies in a state of near-death on a barren Cornwall landscape. Though this was not meant for public consumption, when we do experience it the emotional state of Berg’s mind becomes all too clear. The text also helps to make the closing bars (already pretty intense) become almost unbearable; ‘…so slowly does the spindle of time unwind…’ she sings, before dying away, followed by each instrument, in turn, giving way to silence…

This will be a mandatory purchase for Bergians or lovers of this sort of repertoire. It almost renders comparison with existing versions unnecessary, though you shouldn’t ditch your favourites. It could be argued that Nonesuch should have perhaps recorded an ‘ordinary’ finale, banded it separately, and given the listener the choice. Whatever, I doubt I shall be able to listen to this great and enigmatic work again without reference to this new finale, which unlocks so many of the piece’s secrets.

Tony Haywood



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