ALBAN BERG Orchestral Works: Piano Sonata Op. 1 (1984 orchestration); Three Pieces, Op. 6 (premiere recording); Der Wein (sung in both French and German); Passacaglia; Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1935); Three Fragments from “Wozzeck”; Symphonic Pieces from “Lulu”; Wine, Women and Song (J. Strauss, Arr. by Berg) – Geraldine McGreevy, soprano/ Robert Murray, tenor/ Isabelle van Keulen, violin/ Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Mario Venzago – Chandos multichannel 2-disc set CHSA 5074(2), 79:35, 77:45 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
This is an important and much-needed hi-res collection of works spanning the entire career of the highly individual serialist Alban Berg – who didn’t pen many works during his shortened 50-year life. Not being a fan of serialism, Berg is the only one of the famous group of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg that I can stand to listen to, frankly. He had a unique way to communicating often very strong emotional content in spite of using Schoenberg’s strict non-tonal procedures which seemed destined to destroy all such possibility.
When Berg began studying with Schoenberg the younger composer’s output consisted almost entirely of songs. His teacher wrote that Berg was “absolutely incapable of writing an instrumental movement.” This early piano sonata of 1908 remedied that, and it was orchestrated much later. The Three Pieces were composed shortly after the death of Berg’s model, Mahler, and are influenced strongly by that composer’s later musical language. The Wine is a concert aria presenting settings of three poems by Baudelaire, here sung by tenor Murray for the French version and soprano McGreevy for the German. It’s interesting how much more wild and dark the German version sounds. (Lyrics for all the vocal selections are thankfully included in the note booklet.)
One of Berg’s crowning creations is surely his Violin Concerto, subtitled “Concerto for an Angel,” and honoring a daughter of his friend Alma Mahler who had died of polio. Van Keulen is the superb soloist in the two-movement concerto. The three selections for voice and orchestra from Berg’s opera Wozzeck bring us musical highlights of the gripping, nihilistic drama without having to endure the heavy Germanic downer quality of the whole opera. (I think Werner Herzog’s film version communicates the story better.) The vocal portion is primarily soprano McGreevy again, with a child soprano at the end doing the devastating “hopp, hopp, hopp” which brings down the curtain on the tragedy.
The selections from Berg’s opera Lulu have been available before on a well-known Mercury Living Presence LP. Only the third, Lulu’s Lied, has a vocal. The opera is based on two Wedekind plays and portrays the rise and fall of the sensual and amoral Lulu, who ends up being done in by Jack the Ripper. (See the classic Pabst silent film Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks; it’s based on one of the Wedekind dramas.) This is amazing music; it just works; I’m not sure why. Berg was active in a composer’s group founded by Schoenberg, The Society for Private Musical Performances. When the group ran short of cash, its members created arrangements to sell of Strauss waltzes for an ensemble of piano, harmonium and string quartet. Berg drew Wine, Women and Song, and his wonderfully sophisticated and decadent completely tonal arrangement is a nice change of pace to conclude this collection. I was having hallucinations of Ravel’s La Valse… The surround sonics are excellent thruout, and the performances of the Gothenburg Symphony make it easy to understand why it is the National Orchestra of Sweden.
– John Sunier