ALBAN BERG: Drei Orchesterstücke Op. 6 (Three Orchestral Pieces) – Symphonische Stücke aus der Oper ‘Lulu’ (1935) (Symphonic Suite from “Lulu”) – Anat Efraty – soprano / Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Daniele Gatti – RCO Live multichannel SACD RCO08004, 54:55 **** [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:
Alban Berg, one of the three composers of the 2nd Viennese School sometimes mentioned in the same breath – Schoenberg, Berg and Webern – was born in Vienna in 1885 and remained there for all of his shortish life. A father at 17, married to the possibly illegitimate daughter of Emperor Franz Josef at 26, Berg was dead from septicaemia at just 50.
Berg’s two great influences were Mahler and Schoenberg, both of Jewish origin, a handicap in Vienna until 1945, though Berg himself was not Jewish. Berg was present at a performance of Mahler’s Fourth with the composer conducting, and afterwards stole the baton as a trophy. The Mahlerian romanticism shows itself quite clearly in both works though more so in the Three Orchestral Pieces, but Schoenberg’s teaching comes across more strongly with his use of Grungestalt – basis of coherence – where all the ideas develop from a single germ.
The Three Orchestral Pieces are full of ideas, the Praeludium in its title and construction nodding towards the past, opening with mystery and menace with percussion only and continuing with a strictly symmetrical structure. The second piece is described as a musical nightmare, with its broken waltz and complex use of themes to the extent that at one point six are heard at once in an almost Ivesian jumble. The last of the pieces is a Marsch, the oboe soon quoting the fate theme from Mahler’s Fifth, and later hammer blows occur, five of them, probably a nod to his hero’s Sixth.
Berg’s two operas Wozzeck and Lulu followed later, the first a tale of degeneracy and murder first seen in 1925, the second based on two plays by Wedekind and similar to the history of Jack the Ripper, premiered incomplete after Berg’s death in 1937. The third act was completed for performance only in 1979, premiered in Paris by Pierre Boulez.
The Lulu Suite was written due to Berg’s finding it difficult to get performances of his work due to its atonality committing it to the corpus of entartete Musik – degenerate music. A production of the opera would be impossible, and Berg felt this suite would give listeners a taste of what might come in the future; surprisingly the premiere took place in Berlin in 1934, bravely conducted by that paragon of anti-Nazi conductors, Erich Kleiber.
In five movements, the first is by far the longest, sleazy saxophones painting a sordid picture for the listener. Palindromic construction is used, the second half of which Floris Don describes in his excellent notes for this release as like a film played to a certain point and then backwards. Anat Efraty sings expertly, and her voice has the advantage of being balanced with the orchestra in the wonderful acoustic of the Concertgebouw. The substantial adagio making up the fifth movement uses the music from the end of the opera where Lulu is stabbed by Jack, followed by the profession of love by Lulu’s friend Countess Geschwitz before she herself is stabbed, musically a spell-binding ending as evinced by the silence before the audience’s applause.
The recording quality is terrific; RCO Live has been producing high resolution surround recordings in the Concertgebouw for some time now, and this recording of some quite complex yet approachable music uses the ample acoustic and remains fully transparent. Though described as “live”, these recordings are the results from three performances of the Lulu Suite, and four of the Three Pieces. But I couldn’t spot the joins!
This SACD doesn’t offer the most generous of playing time but makes up for that in playing quality and I heartily recommend it especially to those who have so far thought Berg’s music is a mountain too high to climb. [Right – I’m personally anti-serialist but have always enjoyed Berg, especially his amazing Violin Concerto…Ed.]