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Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Piano Sonata, Op 1 (1907/08, orch. Andrew Davis, 2021)
Passacaglia: Symphonic Fragment of theme and eleven variations (c. 1913, orch. Andrew Davis, 2021)
Three Orchestral Pieces, Op 6 (1914-1915, rev. 1929)
Violin Concerto (1935, rev. Douglas Jarman, 1996)
James Ehnes (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. 2022, Watford Colosseum, UK

I was first introduced to Alban Berg at secondary school. One of the set works for the A Level music exam had been the Violin Concerto. So, the library held several scores and a few copies of an LP, which I think was the Deutsche Grammophon edition with violinist Henryk Szeryng and Jean Martinon conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. I was bowled over by this 12-tone composition. It has remained one of my favourite violin concertos for more than half a century.

The first track on this disc brings us Andrew Davis’s orchestration of Berg’s Piano Sonata. Berg wrote this accomplished piece when he was studying composition with Arnold Schoenberg. Originally meant to have had a slow movement and a finale, it ended up stand-alone. It is conceived in standard sonata-allegro form. The liner notes mention the structurally conventional fact of the repeated exposition. Harmonically, the work is very chromatic. It presents unstable key centres, whole-tone scales, with sometimes dense, often polyphonic, music. In its original incarnation, it demands a highly technical pianism. Andrew Davis explains that “its emotional and dramatic range is enormous”, and that this new orchestration needed to relate to “the sonorities of the era” – those of Mahler, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Schrecker. Previous attempts seem to have employed a chamber ensemble rather than a large post-romantic orchestra. The result is a wonderful tapestry of sound. The mood varies from gentle to fervent, with a satisfyingly gentle conclusion. The organic nature of the sonata form seems to unfold continually, leading us on a magical, if sometimes disconcerting, journey. For my review, I listened several times to this hauntingly lovely re-creation of Berg’s early masterwork: it has suddenly become one of my favourite Berg pieces.

Andrew Davis also orchestrated the Passacaglia: Symphonic Fragment of theme and eleven variations, sketched around 1913 but not completed. The booklet reminds the listener that it was conceived a few years after Berg’s friend and fellow student Anton Webern’s eponymous “first official opus” in 1908. It is possible that the surviving sketches were originally meant to be part of a symphony. The entire Passacaglia is based on a nine-bar theme in G minor, encompassing all the twelve tones of the scale. There follow some eleven variations, full of drama, enhanced by the constantly changing tempi. Davis notes that “the connection to the theme is at times obscure”. Perhaps they stretched Berg’s ability at that time to derive a whole symphony from a single motif. The final variation ebbs away after only three bars. The added value of this four-minute miniature is that the Passacaglia “are indicative of the experimental nature of what Berg was contemplating at the time”. They offer a foretaste of Wozzeck and the Three Orchestral Pieces.

Berg wrote the Three Pieces for orchestra during the opening stages of the First World War. They present a frightening musical image of the unfolding horrors. It has been pointed out that they have Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for orchestra as an inspiration. Yet, they sound nothing like the elder man’s work. In fact, Mahler is the stylistic arbiter. One commentator has suggested that it is Mahler’s Eleventh Symphony, in the same way that Brahms One is Beethoven’s 10th (or is it 11th?).

In fact, seeing Three Pieces as a symphony has Berg’s blessing. In a programme note he suggested that the Präludium represented the first movement, Reigen (Round Dance), a combination of scherzo and slow movement, and the Marsch was the finale. The Marsch is nearly as long as the other two movements combined. This is disturbing music, complex, imaginative and ingenious in its structure and instrumentation. The musicologist Theodor W. Adorno once suggested to Berg that it sounded like Schoenberg’s Five Pieces and the finale of Mahler’s 9th played “all at the same time”. The composer was apparently delighted by this “compliment”.

The present recording successfully integrates the impressionism of the first movement, the dance metaphors of Reigen and the downright intricacy of the march, including the anarchic coda with is terrifying hammer blow conclusion. It is played here in its 1929 revision. The Three Pieces, dedicated to Arnold Schoenberg on his 40th birthday, were not performed in full until 1930. The first two movements were played at a concert in Berlin in June 1923.

The movingly beautiful Violin Concerto was the last major work that Berg composed, and one of his greatest. It was dedicated “to the memory of an angel”, the daughter of Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma and the architect Walter Gropius. Sadly, Manon died of polio at only eighteen. The work is a perfect balance of lyricism and drama. James Ehnes’s performance is magical. He tends towards optimism, which seems to bolster Berg’s contention that serial music could also be romantic. I was taken by his interpretation of this concerto and the integration of the various stylistic innovations such as the Bach chorale, the waltz-like theme and the Carinthian folk tune. The balance between the structural serialism and the more tonal moments is well managed here. There is a tenderness of tone that sings of affection but sometimes echoes despair, a tempestuous protest against life’s tragedy, and a sad, requiem-like epilogue. It is a minor tragedy that Alban Berg never heard this undoubted triumph performed. He died before the premiere could be arranged.

(It is an interesting detail that Berg wrote his Violin Concerto in his summer house at Wörthersee in Carinthia, Austria. This was only a short distance from the village of Pörtschach where Johannes Brahms had conceived his own take on the genre.)
Gavin Plumley’s booklet notes in English, German and French give a detailed introduction to all four works. “A note by the conductor” is a valuable extra: an essay-length appreciation of Berg’s music and an explanation of his approach to the two orchestrations. There are several photographs of the composer, the recording session, the violin soloist and the orchestra and conductor. (James Ehnes’s photograph is somewhat dour for this splendid recording. Something more appropriate, more enticing, to celebrate the prescient nature of this music and performance would have been better.)

This is a remarkable disc. I enjoyed the two transcribed works, which genuinely add to our appreciation and understanding of Alban Berg’s earlier achievement. The performance of the two works of genius – the Three Pieces for orchestra and the Violin Concerto – are revelatory in their sympathy and understanding. It is an album that all enthusiasts of the composer must own.
John France

Published: October 13, 2022

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