- Shenanigans - The Life and Music of Alban Berg [Recommended Recordings]
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28 October, 2012
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Alban Berg
Recommended Recordings

"The best music always results from ecstasies of logic."

Berg: Violin Concerto; Rihm: Time Chant
(Anne-Sophie Mutter; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; James Levine, conductor )
Berg's Violin Concerto (1935) is considered by many the most accessible and emotionally engaging piece of music in the atonal idiom. His last completed work, the concerto was written as a memorial "to an angel" upon the premature death of Alma Mahler's daughter Manon Gropius. But as with all of Berg's oeuvre, an autobiography of the composer's inner life is also thoroughly woven into the score. From the deeply reflective nuances of its quiet opening, Anne-Sophie Mutter takes the listener into the heart of Berg's ambiguous lyricism. There's a keen grasp, both by soloist and conductor James Levine, of the work's intricate structure and progression, but never at the price of a coldly disengaged intellectualism. Mutter summons a marvelous array of shadings and colors, effecting a truly haunting impression as tonality makes its ghostlike apparition, first in the guise of a folk song and, in the final part--following a violent cataclysm rendered with fiery power--in the variations on a quote from a chorale by Bach. Throughout, Mutter's intuitive realization of the psychic journey traced by Berg reveals the work's significance as closer in spirit to a requiem of farewell than a traditional concerto.

Mutter's command of an animated tone that pulsates with expressive purpose inspired the contemporary German composer Wolfgang Rihm to write the other work on this disc, Gesungene Zeit ("Time Chant"). It's a mesmerizing neoexpressionist poem of shimmering, elongated string lines--later punctuated with dire eruptions from full orchestra--that seem to form an ether over which the soloist floats. Any sense of time measured in bars becomes negated as Mutter intones Siren-like threads of sound in the highest register. As with the Penderecki Violin Concerto No. 2 and other contemporary works she champions, Mutter plays with a gripping immediacy that indeed makes Rihm's imaginative novelty seem tailor-made for her. (review by Thomas May)

Berg: Wozzeck
(Hildegard Behrens, Franz Grundheber, et al.; Vienna Boys Choir, Vienna State Opera Orchestra; Claudio Abbado, conductor )
This 1988 Vienna State Opera production of Wozzeck is, to my ears, vastly superior to the 1979 performance by Christoph von Dohnányi with the same orchestra. The entire emotional and dynamic range of the music is here, projected in striking relief. The anxieties of the tale are unflinchingly portrayed, but so, too, are the many moments of tenderness and rapturous beauty. The cast--Franz Grundheber plays the title role and Hildegard Behrens portrays Marie--are skilled dramatists as well as voices, even on record. The disc commemorates one of the rare instances when a company has done justice to the dazzling splendor of Berg's conception. (review by Joshua Cody)

Pierre Boulez Edition - Berg: Chamber Concerto, etc
(Daniel Barenboim, Saschko Gawriloff, et al.; B. B. C. Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra; Pierre Boulez, conductor )
No doctrinaire theorist, Berg composed communicative, emotional music without compromising his technical sophistication and atonal allegiances. The Chamber Concerto has its knotty moments, but also considerable charms. Barenboim's big-hearted, romantic pianism plays off Gawriloff's tart violin, the piquant winds, and Boulez's controlled leadership. The Three Pieces is as close as Berg ever came to writing a symphony; its mix of powerful orchestral outbursts and elegant section writing are reminiscent of Berg's beloved Mahler. The Violin Concerto's ardent warmth and tender lyricism, expressing Berg's meditations on death and redemption (including a direct quote from a Bach cantata) after the untimely passing of Manon Gropius, make it irresistible. The fine performance offers an alternative view to classic older recordings by Louis Krasner and Isaac Stern. Including most of his key instrumental works, this disc is an ideal introduction to Berg's genius. (review by Dan Davis)


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