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Berg Craft PASC646

Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Four symphonic excerpts from Lulu (1934) [18:22]
Konzertarie: Der Wein (1929) [11:54]
Three movements from the Lyric Suite (1925-1926) [15:12]
Chamber Concerto for violin, piano and thirteen wind instruments (1923-1925) [29:58]
Bethany Beardslee (soprano), Israel Baker (violin), Pearl Kaufmann (piano)
The Columbia Symphony Orchestra/Robert Craft
rec. 16 December 1960, Manhattan Center, New York (excerpts from Lulu, Konzertarie), 4 April 1960, Hollywood (Lyric Suite), 8 June 1960, Hollywood (Chamber Concerto)

Robert Craft (1923-2015) is best known as a friend and associate of Igor Stravinsky. In fact, he was the individual who persuaded the Russian to adopt Schoenberg’s serial methodology in the early 1950s. Craft’s interests lay at the opposite ends of the historical timeline, including music by Monteverdi, Schütz, Bach, and Haydn and, what was then contemporary music: the Second Viennese School, Stockhausen, Varčse, and Boulez. He brought the enigmatic Gesualdo to the public’s attention in the late 1950s. Important recording projects included the (in)complete works of Anton Webern, many albums of Stravinsky and a great deal of Arnold Schoenberg’s music. Much of this has been issued on the Naxos label.

This present CD is an XR Remastering of the two-record vinyl set issued in 1961 by Columbia Records (M2L-271 mono/M2S-620 stereo). It includes much of Craft’s back catalogue of Alban Berg. Recordings missing include the Three Pieces for orchestra, the Altenberg Lieder and the Sieben frühe Lieder. There may be some others.

This album opens with the Four Symphonic excerpts from Lulu, sometimes termed the Lulu Symphony. It was originally designed to be an advert for the opera. Instruments took over the vocal parts, except for the soprano solo in the “Lied der Lulu,” and a short passage in the last movement. It would have been helpful to the listener to know that this present recording is Crafts “revision” of Berg’s original, which involved excising the sung portions and also omitting most of the opening “rondo.”  To me, this is an entirely different work. Yet, it is enjoyable and effective. Néstor Castiglione in these files is correct in highlighting that “the bright and "hot” trumpets, which could have wandered in from a Stan Kenton or Billy May session, impart a touch of decadence befitting this music…”  As if Berg’s opera is not decadent enough! The dramatic sweep of Lulu is the tragic downward spiral of an individual. It is possible to listen to this music absolutely, with the generality of this destruction in mind.

Der Wien, a concert aria for soprano and orchestra, is remarkable. It was composed in 1929, during a break from work on the opera Lulu. Berg took his text from Stefan George’s translation of poems by Charles Baudelaire. It is helpful to recall that the Weimar Republic in Germany was in full swing. Nods to “decadence” include the parodying of the tango and a moody alto saxophone. The tone row that Berg chose has qualities that create a more diatonic harmony than may have been expected. It is a tour de force for voice by a composer who is sympathetic to the demands of the singer. Emotionally, these poems summon up an evocation of the heady potential of the wine cellar, the stimulating effect of wine and finally, the reflections of a lonely man. Bethany Beardslee (now, I understand aged 96!) provides a superbly nuanced realisation of this piece, that balances humour with melancholy. It would have been helpful to have the text included in the liner notes.

Alban Berg wrote his Lyric Suite for string quartet during 1925-26. It was premiered in January 1927. Subsequently, he arranged the second, third and fourth movements for string orchestra. Critics will argue about the merits of both these versions. The main loss is the three movements that Berg did not transcribe. On the other hand, the depth of sound created by the string orchestra makes this a deeply felt and passionate work. One must not forget the “secret dedication” of the quartet to Berg’s onetime lover, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (1896–1964). I enjoy and relish both versions of the Lyric Suite. For all Berg enthusiasts it is essential to have both in their collections.

The Chamber Concerto for violin, piano and thirteen wind instruments (1923-1925) is the least well-known of this present repertoire. The conceit about this work Berg indicated in a letter to Arnold Schoenberg: “In it the letters of your name, Anton Webern’s, and mine are sounded, as far as notation permits! thereby establishing three themes which play an important part in the melodic development of the piece. A Trinity of Events is thus established, and the old proverb “All good things come in threes” is suggested. The three parts of the concerto are characterized by three titles, or indications of tempo.”

There is always a danger with a “preoccupation” on structure, yet despite the “mathematical” underpinning of this Concerto, the musical aesthetic is never obliterated. For Berg cognoscenti, there are problems with dynamics and the balance of parts in Craft’s performance, but taken in the round, this is a “beautifully articulated and phrased” work. I need to get to know it better.

Sadly, Craft’s recording of Berg’s beautiful Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven Early Songs) (c. 1905- 1908) with orchestral accompaniment, which was included on the above-mentioned LP set, is not included here. I regard these as being on a par with Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. The record company apologises for this omission due to space and promises to do what they can to include them on a subsequent release.

I was hugely disappointed with the insert provided with this CD. It is simply a sheet of folded paper. There is the cover photo of the conductor and the briefest of notes about the disc, which do not even mention some of the works, and appear to be extracts from a review in The New York Times (25 March 1962). It seems to me that Craft’s detailed original liner notes are vital to any repackaging of this album. An example of spoiling the ship etc…

In the round this is a remarkable CD. Despite the recordings being more than 60 years old, they present a great account of Berg’s music with clear and bright sound.

John France

Previous review: Néstor Castiglione

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