Berg violin CHSA5270

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

By common consent, Berg’s violin concerto is the most beautiful work composed using serial technique by the three members of the Second Viennese School. Here it forms the culminating work in a fascinating programme of Berg’s orchestral works, two of which are in a form new to the catalogue.

The Piano Sonata was Berg’s first published work and his only work for solo piano. It was in fact the sole survivor of a number of piano sonatas which he drafted but did not complete. Even this one was originally intended to have two more movements, before Berg realized, at the prompting of his teacher Schoenberg, that he had said all he wanted to say already. It is written in a rich late romantic idiom, close to that of Mahler but already moving towards expressionism. It is presented here in an orchestration made by the conductor here, Andrew Davis. This is not in fact the first time it has been orchestrated: there was one for chamber ensemble by Mino Marani, which you can find online, and another for orchestra by Theo Verbey, which has been recorded by both Riccardo Chailly and Mario Venzago. Davis’ version sounds to me the best yet – he uses a large orchestra which includes such rarities as an alto flute and an oboe d’amore – and to me it sounds marvellous and also thoroughly idiomatic.

The short Passacaglia which follows is all that was drafted of a possible symphony, written in the years between the Piano Sonata of 1911 and the outbreak of the First World War. This turned up in 1969, orchestrated by Christian von Borries, but once again Davis has made his own version, and it is very attractive, though tantalisingly short.

The Three Orchestral Pieces are another matter, Berg’s largest orchestral work not involving a soloist and, along with Schoenberg’s Five Pieces and Webern’s Six and Five, expressionist classics from the period of free atonality before Schoenberg devised the serial method. The three pieces are titled Präludium (Prelude), Reigen (Rounds) and Marsch (March) and almost make up a symphony. The idiom is again Mahlerian, but with an extraordinarily rich and complex texture, scored for a large late-romantic orchestra. It was Mahler’s sixth symphony which Berg particularly admired, and in the Marsch he went so far as to include the hammer, which Mahler scored for in his finale. Davis here shows his complete mastery of the complexities of the idiom and the climaxes are duly shattering.

The Violin Concerto is a much later work, indeed the last that Berg completed. It is dedicated ‘to the memory of an angel.’ This was Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, who died of polio at the age of eighteen. There are other complications behind the dedication, which are explored in the booklet here, but there is no need to go into them. Nor need one concern oneself with the serial method which Berg used here. The work is in two movements, each of which is divided into two parts. The first movement is a portrait of Manon, first soulful, then skittish. The second movement begins with a representation of her illness and then in the second part, Berg makes his boldest move. He includes a Bach chorale, whose words in the opriginal are consolatory: Es ist genug (It is enough), and he does so in Bach’s original harmonization which he weaves seamlessly into his serial idiom. This leads to some variations, and he ends with Manon’s soul being taken up to heaven. It is a profoundly moving work.

Andrew Davis is here reunited with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, of which he was Chief Conductor for a number of successful years. I first became aware of his prowess in Berg’s idiom through a production of his opera Lulu, which he brought to the London Proms some years ago. The BBC SO is, of course thoroughly familiar with the music of the Second Viennese School, having been taught it by Boulez. They make an excellent team. For the concerto they are joined by James Ehnes, of whom Davis says that he never performed the concerto with more pleasure than with him. Ehnes offers a beautiful performance, showing all the necessary virtuosity in what must be a very challenging solo part but always emphasizing the lyrical line.

The booklet is very informative and the recording – this is a SACD but I was listening in ordinary two channel stereo – very clear and good. There are, of course, many other recordings of the concerto and of the Three Pieces, but the other two works are new to the catalogue and are well worth having. I hope Davis and the BBC SO go on to record more Berg. Strongly recommended.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: John France (Recording of the Month – October 2022)

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