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Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Violin Concerto ‘To the Memory of an Angel’ (1935) [29:09]
Seven Early Songs (1905-08, 1928) [16:09]
Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op 6 (1929 revision) [21:51]
Gil Shaham (violin)
Susanna Phillips (soprano)
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. live, January 2015 (Three Pieces), March 2018 (Concerto), November 2018 (Songs),
Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, USA
Sung German texts with English translations in booklet
SFS MEDIA SFS0080 SACD [67:09]

For its latest release on its own, in-house label, SFS Media, the San Francisco Symphony and conductor Tilson Thomas turn to the music of Alban Berg, a member of the Zweite Wiener Schule (Second Viennese School). Arnold Schoenberg was its leader and Anton Webern and Berg were prominent adherents. With its roots in the mainstream Austro-German Romantic tradition, the Schoenberg group controversially pushed the conventional boundaries for music composition with twelve-tone serialism.

In 1904, Berg met the influential Schoenberg and studied with him until 1911. He did not embrace serialism absolutely and is considered the most conservative of the principal members of the school. Traces of Romanticism aside, I consider his music to be the most approachable with reasonable concentration. Conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli expressed the view that, ‘Of the three composers of the Schoenberg school, Berg was the one who was the freest as an artist… using the twelve-note system as an act of homage to Schoenberg.’

The earliest works on this new album are the seven Lieder, originating around 1905-08. One of the pivotal works in Austro-German art-song, the set is presented here in its orchestral version. Following the succès de scandale of his opera Wozzeck, Berg needed a new work to present to his growing group of admirers. Early in his career, he had written a substantial number of unpublished songs for voice and piano, all settings of German poets. In 1928, Berg selected seven of his songs to rework and orchestrate, which he published together with those in the original form. The two sets became known as the Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven Early Songs). These early settings are written in the tradition of Austro-German art-song by composers Berg admired such as Wolf, Bruckner, Brahms, Richard Strauss and Mahler. While writing the original songs, Berg was studying under Schoenberg and was immersed in serialism. He responded to being pulled two ways by melding lyrical Romantic expression with aspects of serial techniques of varying degrees learned from Schoenberg. James M. Keller in his booklet essay describes Berg’s orchestration of these early songs as ‘to some extent an exercise in nostalgia, an opportunity to revisit his formative years under his great teacher.’

Berg’s scoring of the Seven Early Songs calls for large orchestral forces and for each song he uses a different instrumental grouping. On this recording, the soloist is Susanna Phillips, an American soprano who in 2008 made her New York Met debut in La bohème as Musetta and has appeared internationally on the opera stage in major lyric roles. Phillips is no stranger to the SF Symphony and here they collaborate again, providing a performance with a compelling sense of engagement and noticeable unanimity. Displaying assurance with this repertory, Phillips dependably conveys an unerring feeling for the German text together with the necessary vocal strength and amplitude.

Standing out, is the opening song Nacht, a setting of Carl Hauptmann text which uses the full orchestra. Strongly evoking a Caspar David Friedrich nocturnal scene, Berg produces shifting tone colours and a rather Debussian sound. In a technically demanding setting, Phillips successfully controls her intonation and breath control and is able to reveal a tone of an attractive silvery lustre. She interprets the Hauptmann text with utmost sincerity and creates a dream-like beauty with an underswell of mystery.

Another highlight is the performance of the setting of Theodor Storm’s text to Die Nachtigall (The Nightingale) an oft-employed subject in German Romantic literature. Scored for strings, the song is resolutely established in tonality. Berg’s writing evokes the melodious spirit of the nightingale’s song, signifying the muse of nature. Philipps readily negotiates the broad vocal range and creates a captivating drama which Berg eliminates all too quickly. Her high register is delightful and enriched by an appealing vibrato. A number of renowned sopranos including Jessye Norman, Anne Sofie Von Otter, Barbara Bonney and Renée Fleming have recorded Seven Early Songs. In my view, this performance from Susanna Phillips rises to the same level, or very close. Atmospheric and eminently approachable, these are really special orchestral songs that profit from irresistible performances by the SF Symphony.

Renowned composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, a specialist in twentieth century music considered Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op 6 as ‘the first great masterpiece of the twentieth century.’ Conceived from a project for a suite of character-pieces or a symphony, the Three Pieces seem mainly to have been written in 1913-15. Berg must have been satisfied with the two movements of the score which he posted to Schoenberg as a fortieth birthday gift. When the score was introduced in 1923 only the two movements that Berg judged up to scratch were performed. He reworked the complete score for large orchestra in 1929, in preparation for the premiere performance of all three movements in 1930. A substantial orchestral score, Three Pieces has been viewed as a watershed in Berg’s career, as prior to this, he had been writing mainly Lieder. At times, I recognise influences of the music of Mahler and Debussy, both composers admired by Berg. Certainly, Three Pieces could be seen as Berg’s special tribute to Mahler. Keller’s booklet essay tells us that Berg employs some approaches that Mahler used in his symphonies such as ‘Ländler, waltz and march’ together with expanding tonal parameters and the remodelling of the symphonic concept.

Keller feels that Berg forms these three knotty movements in a masterly fashion, uniting the thematic material by thorough interlacing. Certainly, Three Pieces makes significant demands on the conductor and orchestra. Its note-dense score is packed heavily with expression markings and I believe there are over seventy changes of tempo in just the March. Undoubtedly, the Three Pieces are not performed too often, and it is regularly stated how intensely challenging the work is for the general listener. In truth, Berg’s music speaks to me far more directly than say Webern’s Six Pieces for orchestra, Op 6 and Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for orchestra, Op 16 and Variations for Orchestra, Op 31 all works that I find require deeper levels of concentration.

The ideal conductor for Three Pieces, Tilson Thomas, with all his characteristic precision and dramatic expression, creates fascinating images. This is a complex score that improves with repeated listening and to me here portrays a scene of a thicket of stinging nettles and brambles contrasted with an extravagant display of blooming orchids. Berg considered Präludium (Prelude), marked ‘slow’, as a ‘symphonic first movement’ and Tilson Thomas almost immediately establishes a strong sense of mystery of a curious subterranean character. The playing is powerful and resolute on a massive scale with a sense of something clandestine in the undertow.

Marked with the instruction ‘A little hesitant at first - Light and winged’, Reigen (Round Dance or Rounds) is described as ‘encompassing a scherzo and slow movement (in that order!)’. Berg gave it the name Round Dance owing to its connection with the early Austro-German Ländler or waltz. Straight away, I am drawn to the compelling sense of movement Tilson Thomas produces, suggesting to me a gigantic edifice slowly grinding forward. One can detect at times a number of Berg’s ingenious transformations to the Ländler or waltz medium, yet I marvel at all the content in the writing yet to be revealed to me. A sense of pent-up energy prevails, then the players gradually develop an uneasy calm, as if running out of energy, until all spent. 

At almost twice the length of the previous two movements the concluding Marsch, marked ‘Moderate march tempo,’ is described as a ‘symphonic finale’. The series of savage climaxes (Höhepunkte) that Tilson Thomas and his players expertly generate are striking. This is a searching account; Tilson Thomas exposes the emotional components held within the complex writing of the score. Glimpses of mysterious gothic landscapes and powerful nerve-jangling gestures combine for this roller coaster of thrilling eruptions. Often mentioned, owing to the associations found in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, Berg’s final hammer blow serves to strengthen the feeling of disaster.

This is a first-class account of Three Pieces. The precision and colour of the brilliant playing of the SF Symphony remind me of the sterling 1972 Berlin account from Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon. Either the Tilson Thomas or the Karajan account is an invaluable addition to any serious collection.

Berg’s Violin Concerto ‘To the memory of an angel’ is in my view one of the great concertos. It is a remarkably lyrical score, and I can think of few twentieth century violin concertos as deeply emotional. In what could be considered as an ‘instrumental requiem’, whereby he inscribed the score ‘To the memory of an angel’, Berg was commemorating the tragic death of Manon Gropius who had contracted polio. Known as ‘Mutzi’ the eighteen-year-old, an aspiring actress, was the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius. This was clearly an important project for Berg, as he suspended work on his opera Lulu which consequently remained unfinished at his death. The opportunity for this memorial to Manon was a valuable commission from violin soloist Louis Krasner. Completed in 1935, it was Berg’s last complete work, but he died before he could hear it. Krasner, both the dedicatee and commissioner, gave the posthumous premiere in 1936 at Barcelona. Not totally abandoning tonality, here Berg creates an individual sound-world by profitably merging features of Romanticism with his own variant of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system. It has a two-movement design, each of which is divided into two parts. Significantly, Berg uses quotations from Carinthian folk melody and also writes a set of variations on J.S. Bach’s chorale Es ist genug (It is enough) from BWV 60. Each of the movements and sub-movements are frequently regarded as depictions of Manon Gropius. Several Berg scholars have suggested the presence of ‘secret-programmes (including numerological schemes) in Berg’s score such as references to Marie Scheuchl ‘Mizzi’ with whom he had illegitimate daughter and also his mistress Hanna Fuchs-Robetti.

Violin soloist Gil Shaham first recorded the Berg Violin Concerto in 2010 with the Staatskapelle Dresden under David Robertson at the Semperoper, Dresden on Canary Classics (review). Recorded eight years later, with this 2018 San Francisco account, he takes around a minute and a half longer, providing inspiring playing of passion and sincerity. In movement one, the work’s Präludium, an Andante section provides absorbing, dream-like qualities that in Shaham’s hands sound quite glorious. It is here that Berg introduces his tone row, the basis for the whole score. The expressive splendour of the violin writing that Shaham affirms so persuasively might easily evoke Manon’s beauty and compassion, providing a firm contrast with the more abrasive textures of the orchestra. Marked Allegretto, the second part serving as a Scherzo, suggesting a dance, swings between a rather fragile and wistful character to the bucolic spirit of the Carinthian folk melody. In a section ending in positivity, it feels as if Shaham has created a portrayal of Manon’s exuberance and sense of freedom.

Movement two, Cadenza marked Allegro, achieves fresh summits of excellence with Shaham and the orchestra securely focused, producing considerable drama with a gathering storm becoming increasingly ominous and turbulent. Pounding timpani adds to the sense of menace that gives way to a sombre interlude leading to the concluding Adagio section. Shaham’s playing of the variations on the J.S. Bach chorale takes on an empyrean quality that feels cathartic, with the woodwind sounding remarkably like an organ. The control Shaham displays with the sombre music is remarkable as it winds its way forward until it decays away to nothing, that must surely represent the sad demise of Manon.

Undaunted by the considerable challenges of the concerto, Shaham gives a glorious performance which penetrates the heart of the score. His playing is a compelling combination of precision and emotion. Conspicuous, too, is the range of colour and quality of nuance he achieves. He causes the score to be permeated with anxiety and yearning and a sincerity that is never in doubt. I sense throughout that soloist, conductor and orchestra successfully share the same objectives and prosper thereby.

Of the recordings of the Berg concerto, there is an account from 1936 played by Louis Krasner with the BBC SO under Anton Webern. Shortly after Berg’s death a concert with an invited audience was recorded for radio broadcast. As the original BBC master tape had not been kept, the recording is from acetate discs found in an attic in a private house in 1987. An historical document it may be, but the sound proves too problematic for me. My first-choice recording is the 1995 account played by Reiko Watanabe with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Giuseppe Sinopoli. Recorded live at the Semperoper Dresden and originally released on Teldec (reissued on Warner Elatus), Watanabe’s sensitive and engaging performance has won many admirers over the years. In truth, I would select Watanabe over celebrated recordings by far more celebrated names (review). Admirable, too, is Isabelle Faust with the Orchestra Mozart under Claudio Abbado with a striking and award-winning performance. Using a period-informed approach, Faust’s account does not have the same warmth of tone as, for example, Shaham (2018) and Mutter (1992). Faust was recorded in 2010 in the Auditorio Manzoni, Bologna, a combination of live concert and rehearsal on Harmonia Mundi. However, I am strongly drawn to this insightful performance by Shaham who certainly plays beautifully in collaboration with his stellar orchestral partners. I am not sure if Shaham trumps Watanabe’s account, yet I favour it over Faust’s, and it is certainly a premier division recording deserving of praise.

With this Berg album, the long and productive alliance between Tilson Thomas and the SF Symphony continues to flourish. Without a weak link, all orchestra sections excel. Responding persuasively to the daunting challenges Berg has set, the polished orchestral playing is alert and precise, clearly savouring the colouristic possibilities of the scores. Standing out, is the rewarding quality and extent of unhindered detail heard from the introspective passages through to the full-blooded sounds.

These three, striking, live performances were recorded in 2015 and 2018 in the Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco and it comes as no surprise they were chosen for this album, which is available as a studio master-quality SACD and as a digital download and via streaming. The 2015 performance of Three Pieces actually appeared in 2017 as the first download-only release of the SFS Media label. I have the hybrid SACD which was auditioned on my standard unit. The first-class sound produced in the Davies Symphony Hall confers clarity and a satisfying balance between the soloists and the orchestra. Audience noise is minimal and applause has been taken out. Included in the liner notes is an interesting and informative essay by renowned programme annotator James M. Keller. He provides both the background and a compact description of each work. In addition, I am delighted to report that the sung German texts are included with English translations placed alongside.

Three Pieces is a challenging and complex work, yet hugely rewarding. The two couplings Seven Early Songs and the Violin Concerto are more accessible and similarly gratifying. This is an album to savour from start to finish – unquestionably a valuable addition to any collection.

Michael Cookson



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