Lebrecht Weekly | Alban Berg: Violin concerto &c. (Chandos)

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This is Alban Berg as you’ve never heard him before. The English conductor Sir Andrew Davis has spent lockdown time orchestrating two works that Berg never intended for orchestra. The piano sonata of 1907-08 was Berg’s first published work, written under the admonitory thumb of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg who was in the throes of embracing atonality.

The Passacaglia of 1913 is another Berg stepping stone towards maturity. In Davis’s orchestration, the sonata score sounds like a missing suite from his second opera, Lulu, while the Passacaglia is steeped in its predecessor, Wozzeck.

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If I’d heard it in a blind listening, I would probably have identified the music as Berg, though some passages could be mistaken for Franz Schreker, the arch-decadent opera composer of the day. No bad thing in any event and the music is extremely listenable when played as persuasively as this by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with haunting solos by concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich. Like much of Schreker, if washes over and around you without gripping the ear. The Three orchestral Pieces of 1914-15 are played here in Berg’s original score, though they too are a bit Schrek-licht, if you’ll pardon the German pun.

The violin concerto is another matter. Written as a tribute to Alma Mahler’s teenaged daughter Manon, who died of polio, and imbued with the dual eroticism of Lulu and Berg’s extramarital love affair with Alma’s sister-in-law in Prague, the work was paid for by an American violinist, Louis Krasner, in exchange for exclusive playing rights.

Berg died of an infection, aged 50, in 1935, and the posthumous premiere was wrecked by the intended conductor Anton von Webern having a mental breakdown. Krasner persisted with the original score for two decades without much acclaim. The present performance follows a 1996 revision by the Berg biographer Douglas Jarman.

Coming after the preceding meanderings, the concerto leaps out as the towering masterpiece it is, played with a relaxed, honeyed tone by the Canadian soloist James Ehnes. Refusing to recognise difficulty, Ehnes plays it as late-romanticism rather than ultra-modernism, an approach that makes revelatory sense of the Lulu snippets and the liberal Bach quotations. Davis and the BBC provide lashings of empathy in one of the finest Berg interpretations I can remember. I’m almost tempted to write that if you like the Tchaikovsky concerto…. well, not quite, but nearly.


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About Author

Norman Lebrecht is a prolific writer on music and cultural affairs. His blog, Slipped Disc, is one of the most popular sites for cultural news. He presents The Lebrecht Interview on BBC Radio 3 and is a contributor to several publications, including the Wall Street Journal and The Standpoint. Visit every Friday for his weekly CD review // Norman Lebrecht est un rédacteur prolifique couvrant les événements musicaux et Slipped Disc, est un des plus populaires sites de nouvelles culturelles. Il anime The Lebrecht Interview sur la BBC Radio 3 et collabore à plusieurs publications, dont The Wall Street Journal et The Standpoint. Vous pouvez lire ses critiques de disques chaque vendredi.

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