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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Orchestral Works
CD 1 [79:35]
Piano Sonata, Op.1 (1908) (orch. 1984 by Theo Verbey (b.1959)) [12:43]
Three Pieces, Op.6 (1914-15/ rev.1929) [20:57]
Der Wein (1929) Sung in French [12:52]
Passacaglia (1913) [4:17]
Violin Concerto (1935) [28:10]
CD 2 [77:45]
Three Fragments from Wozzeck (1923-4) [19:58]
Symphonic Pieces from Lulu (1934) [34:17]
Der Wein (1929) Sung in German [13:13]
Wein, Weib und Gesang! Waltz Op.333 by Johann Strauss (transc. Berg (1921)) [9:22]
Geraldine McGreevy (soprano); Robert Murray (tenor); Isabelle van Keulen (violin)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Mario Venzago
rec. Konzerthuset, Gothenburg, 26 August 2004 (Three Pieces); 14 August 2006 (Sonata); 15-16 August 2006 (Wozzeck Fragments), 16 August 2006 (Passacaglia); 19-20 June 2007 (Lulu Suite); 21 June 2007 (Der Wein in German); 27-28 August 2007 (Concerto); 30 August 2007 (Der Wein in French); 31 August 2007 (Wein, Weib und Gesang!)
CHANDOS CHSA 5074(2) [79:35 + 77:45]
Experience Classicsonline

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 fragment.

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.

Tony Haywood 

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 speaker.

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 Lieder

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!

Siebe Riedstra


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