BERG BY ARRANGEMENT – Music for Strings: Lyric Suite (arr. Berg/Verbey), Piano Sonata (arr. Van Klaveren), Kanon (arr. Schnittke), Early Pieces (arr. Kovacic)—NFM Leopoldinum Ch. Orch./Ernst Kovacic—Toccata Classics TOCC 0247, 59:04 [Distr. by Naxos] 59:04 ****:

If you are a beginner to the beauties and angst of the Second Viennese School of composers (Schoenberg, Webern, Berg) and like string music, this album might be the ideal starting point. It is a beautifully played and recorded arrangement for string orchestra of Alban Berg’s (1885-1935) early and middle period pieces. Although there is a Romantic aspect to early Berg, this disc overbalances that quality because of the nature of the medium of the string orchestra.

Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg from 1904 to 1911 where he studied harmony, counterpoint, music theory and classical forms. The “Early Pieces” were student works from the first couple of years of Berg’s tutelage. The seven selections have structural titles—Menuet, Sarabande, etc., clearly meant to provide experience for the young composition student. They are examples of the lyrical counterpoint that the teacher felt was essential for his student to master. Although originally written for the string quartet, Kovacic’s (an Austrian violinist) arrangements provide body and heft.

The Lyric Suite, written for string quartet, is a mature work—written in 1925-6. Its tart lyricism and often vivacious counterpoint was written when Berg was in the midst of (in his fantasies, rather than in the realm of physical reality) a romantic affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, the wife of a wealthy industrialist, and sister of the novelist Franz Werfel—who was involved with Gustav Mahler’s widow, Alma, at the time. Evidently, a listener can hear the progression of the affair from innocent beginnings to, in Berg’s words, “attains the utmost wretchedness and despair,” at the end. When the Kolisch Quartet premiered it in 1927, it became an immediate hit, and remains popular today. Berg did transcribe movements 2, 3, and 4 himself, for string orchestra. The remainder was orchestrated on this CD in 2005 by Dutch composer Theo Verbey.

Some listeners might be very upset at the differences in the Lyric Suite between the string quartet version, and these performances, even in Berg’s own transcriptions. In the seven minute “Andante Amoroso” the chamber orchestra version is one and a quarter minute longer. Of course, it is a more ‘romantic’ and turgid than the chamber music original. In a comparison version for string quartet (the New Zealand String Quartet) the bittersweet emotional qualities emerge clearly and the lean textures convey more angst and have a sharper edge. In the “Allegro Misterioso” the string quartet scurries about as if ghosts were having a Halloween picnic, and the passionately emotional “Adagio appassionato” still exhibits an edge that makes it clear that we’re in the early 20th century. Berg’s chamber music version heard here softens the edges and sounds cavernous, while the “Adagio” sounds much more romantic in its full chamber music version.

Although the Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1908) is an early work of Berg, the use of whole-tone scale and other devices reflects the student’s movement toward atonality. The piano version used for comparision (Pierre-Laurent Aimard), is a full two minutes shorter than Wijnand van Klaveren’s chamber music version. There’s a softness in Aimard’s piano interpretation, but the instrument itself balances that with the natural clarity of the keys. The chamber music version here does add contrapuntal interest, and is naturally lush sounding, but the clarity of the piano, is of course, missing. It does, however, convey considerable emotion missing in a piano version. The Kanon was written in 1930 with no specific instrumentation identified. The Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke, known for his use of music of earlier composers, made the transcription used here. Its four part structure uses a twelve-tone row. It has a tart dissonance that does not outstay its two minutes length. This disc emphasizes the romantic qualities of a significant composer of the Second Viennese School, so purists be aware.

—Robert Moon