Alban BERG (1885-1935)
CD 1
Violin Concerto (1935) [25:34]
Lulu-Suite (1935) [33:57]
Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6 (1914-15, rev. 1929) [19:37]
CD 2
Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1907-08) [12:31]
String Quartet, Op. 3 (1910) [19:54]
Lyric Suite for String Quartet (1925-26) [27:10]
Seven Early Songs (1905-08, rev. and orch. 1928) [15:25]
Various artists and recording venues - see complete listing at end of review
No texts or translations.
EMI CLASSICS 9072112 [79:14 + 75:14]

These well-filled discs represent a good cross-section of Alban Berg’s works from the early Sieben frühe Lieder and Piano Sonata to two of his greatest works written near the end of his rather short life, the Lulu-Suite and the Violin Concerto. The set is also a real bargain in that all of the performances and recordings are first rate, and the CDs are at budget price.

The first disc starts with what is Berg’s most often performed and best-loved work, the Violin Concerto. Although based on Schoenberg’s tone row series of twelve notes, it contains many tonal elements, not least of which is the use of Bach’s chorale “Es ist genug” in the second movement. Franz Peter Zimmermann’s performance is overall the speediest of the five in my collection, though it nowhere sounds rushed. Where Daniel Hope takes over twelve minutes for the first movement and seventeen for the second, Zimmermann’s comes in at eleven and fourteen and a half, respectively. Zimmermann gives an eloquent account of the work and the violin is balanced very well with the orchestra, though I still prefer Hope by a small margin. The orchestra’s role is nearly as important as that of the soloist, and Gelmetti and the Stuttgart orchestra provide superb support. The recording is so clear that you can easily hear all of the orchestral solos and yet the violin is forward enough to avoid being covered by the at times dense orchestration.

Next on the disc is the suite Berg made from his unfinished opera Lulu. Rattle and the CBSO capture the spirit of the music very well. They play with warmth, but do not romanticize the music. They also bring out the humor with the hurdy-gurdy imitation in the Variations movement. Arleen Augér’s solos blend in with the orchestra rather than standing out as one might expect. Yet, the purity of her tone is a definite asset. The first disc concludes with what in my opinion is one of the composer’s toughest nuts to crack, the Three Orchestral Pieces. Metzmacher and the Bambergers do as fine a job with them as I have heard. They are certainly better played and recorded than the version by Colin Davis and the Bavarian Radio Symphony on a Philips CD that accompanies Gidon Kremer’s highly regarded performance of the Violin Concerto.

The second disc consists of solo and chamber works. Peter Donohoe gives a fine account of the highly chromatic Piano Sonata. His is a less dramatic performance than Mitsuko Uchida’s on the Philips recording that includes her terrific performance of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto. Yet Donohoe is powerful enough when the music calls for power. The eponymous Alban Berg Quartett provides definitive accounts of the two string pieces. I reviewed their version of the Quartet earlier when it appeared in a compilation of twentieth-century string quartets also on EMI. The Lyric Suite also leaves nothing to be desired. I prefer this performance to that of the Juilliard Quartet on a Sony disc containing unidiomatic accounts of the Janáček quartets. The Alban Berg Quartett is slightly faster and lighter with the work and has a more natural flow. The disc ends with the Seven Early Songs, which are performed in the composer’s later revision accompanied by a chamber orchestra. I had not heard Sine Bundgaard before. She has a lovely voice and captures the romance and nature imagery of the songs very well, and Pintscher and the Danish Radio Sinfonietta provide excellent accompaniment.

Since there is not a single dud among the performances, I can heartily recommend these discs for someone coming to Berg for the first time and also to the seasoned collector. The reduced price is a further enhancement, but it’s a pity that no texts for the songs or for the vocal parts of the Lulu-Suite were included. The notes themselves, while rather skimpy, are well written and provide some background to the works.

Leslie Wright

A fine collection of Berg that should have wide appeal

Artist and Recording details

Violin Concerto
Franz Peter Zimmermann (violin); Radio Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart/Gianluigi Gelmetti
rec. 3-5 September 1990, Villa Berg (SDR Studio), Stuttgart, Germany

Arleen Augér (soprano); City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 19-21 December 1987, Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre, Birmingham, England

Three Orchestral Pieces
Bamberger Symphoniker/Ingo Metzmacher
rec. 12-13, 15 May and 22-23 September 1995, Sinfonie an der Regnitz, Bamberg, Germany

Piano Sonata
Peter Donohoe (piano)
rec. 10, 12 February and 17, 21 May 1989, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, England

String Quartet; Lyric Suite
Alban Berg Quartett (Günter Pichler, Gerhard Schulz (violin); Thomas Kakuska (viola); Valentin Erben (cello))
rec. December 1991 (Quartet) and June 1992 (Lyric Suite), Evangelische Kirche, Seon, Switzerland

Seven Early Songs
Sine Bundgaard (soprano); Danish Radio Sinfonietta/Matthias Pintscher
rec. 20-21 September 2004, Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark