CD Review


© Siebe Riedstra, May 2009

Also published by MusicWeb International



Berg: Piano Sonata Op 1 (orchestration by Theo Verbey) – Drei Orchesterstücke Op 6 (version1929) – Der Wein (sung in French) – Passacaglia (compl. Christian von Borries) – Violin Concerto – Drei Bruchstücke aus ‘Wozzeck’ – Lulu-Suite – Der Wein – Wein, Weib und Gesang (Johann Strauss II, arr. Alban Berg).

Geraldine McGreevy (soprano), Robert Murray (tenor) Isabelle van Keulen (violin), Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mario Venzago.

Chandos CHSA 5074(2) • 80’ + 78’ • (sacd)

The orchestral output of Alban Berg is limited to just two original scores: his first orchestral outing Drei Stücke (Three pieces) für Orchester opus 6, and his swan song, the Violin Concerto. Yet this well-filled double CD is labeled ‘Alban Berg – Orchestral works’. A bit of a conundrum, but easily explained: the other pieces recorded here are either orchestrations or extrapolations.

The first CD opens with an orchestral version of Berg’s opus 1, the Piano Sonata of 1908, the graduation piece that marked the end of his studies with Arnold Schoenberg. The orchestration is the work of another young composer, Dutchman Theo Verbey (b.1953), completed in 1984, and in 1988 taken up by Riccardo Chailly, then newly appointed music director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Decca used it as filler for Chailly’s recording of Mahler’s First Symphony in 1996, but sadly this recording has been deleted. It is good to welcome it back to the catalogue; Verbey has done an excellent job in clarifying the rather dense texture of the original. He employs an orchestral style that is strictly in sync with the Orchestral Pieces opus 6 and the opera Wozzeck. The use of typical Bergian sonorities ensures that the music never sounds like a transcription.

Next are the Three Pieces for Orchestra opus 6, completed in 1915 and here played – as always – in the 1929 revision. Mahler had just died when Berg started on these pieces and his presence hovers ominously. The fateful hammer blow that ends the third piece is an obvious reference to the finale of the Sixth Symphony of his idol. These pieces have been recorded many times and yet there are always new fascinating insights to be found. A case in point: at the end of the second piece, ‘Reigen’, in the penultimate bar, muted horns and trumpets are supposed to enter in the pause between two clearly separated chords from the main orchestra on a major third. In most recordings this entry goes for naught, leaving the subsequent ascendance in thirds and triplets, to end an octave above where they started, in a murky way. Not here.

‘Le Vin’, a concert aria on a text by Baudelaire, reverts to the original setting of Stefan George’s German translation. It was composed in 1929 and commissioned by the Czech soprano Ruzena Herlinger. Berg was in the middle of his work on Lulu, but could use the money. He was also in the middle of a love affair with Hanna Fuchs, the woman who inspired the ‘Lyrische Suite’ for string quartet. As Berg was fond of using autobiographical details in his works, this one is no exception. Both their initials, A.B. and H.F. translate to A,B-flat (a semitone) and B,F in the German nomenclature. B,F happens to be Alban Bergs favorite interval, the tritone. These intervals, plus Bergs favorite number, 23, play an important role in Der Wein. Apart from differences originating in the language, the ending is remarkable, to say the least. As an extra the singer – here a tenor – is given a few more notes and ends the piece spectacularly on a high d-flat. This holds no fears for the heroic Robert Murray, who makes a convincing connection to Mahler’s Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde. The French text is well executed but shows that he is not a native speaker.

Next is a newly discovered apprentice piece, the Passacaglia from 1913, left in short score and finished by Christian von Borries. It is a symphonic fragment consisting of a theme and eleven variations, lasting just over four minutes, that ends in mid air. Alas, Christian von Borries is no Theo Verbey, and his orchestration is woefully inept, despite some adjustments by conductor Mario Venzago.

The first CD closes with Bergs most beloved orchestral creation, the Violin Concerto of 1935, written in memory of Manon Gropius, daughter of Franz Werfel and Alma Mahler-Werfel, who died at age eighteen. Berg created this loving monument ‘To the memory of an Angel’ in the incredibly short space of four months. It was to become his own Requiem: in August of the same year he received an insect sting that was not properly treated and caused his death by blood poisoning. The performance here uses the revised edition of 1996. If you want to hear a defining moment to recognize this edition, turn to the beginning of the second movement. The violin solo just after the orchestral tutti jumps two octaves, not one, without retaking the octave in the next bar. Somehow the ottava marking went missing in the printed score. Isabelle van Keulen is not the first one to record this edition: Daniel Hope claimed to be the first. In 1992 however, Thomas Zehetmair had already corrected this mistake. After the acclaimed performance in the romantic mold of Perlman there is now room for a leaner approach, and Isabelle van Keulen makes an excellent case for it. She is not afraid of yielding to the demands made by the score of so-called Haupt and Neben Stimmen (lead and secondary voices). This is very much a performance for the twenty-first century.

The second CD is a certified showcase for soprano Geraldine McGreevy. She stars in the two orchestral suites that Berg himself culled from his operas Wozzeck and Lulu, plus the concert aria Der Wein. To do all three pieces in one sitting is a bit of derring-do, in which she succeeds admirably. ‘Drei Bruchstücke aus Wozzeck’, three fragments from Wozzeck, is a randomly picked selection, from a score that is crammed with memorable moments. McGreevy has sung the role on stage and it shows. As happens sometimes with non-native speakers, her enunciation is impeccable, more so than with most singers to the language born. The transition to Lulu holds no secrets for her, although the tessitura here is much higher. For decades the recording of these pieces has been the provenance of Antál Dorati and Helga Pylarczyk, with the London Symphony Orchestra, providing a blood-curdling shriek in Lulu that is not in the score (but, of course, part of the opera). Claudio Abbado and Margaret Price gave us a beautiful Lulu Suite with the same orchestra on DGG with sound that deserves the description Technicolor. Performances and sound on this new Chandos recording are sane and lucid. None of the mad scramble that Pierre Boulez manages with the New York Philharmonic in the Ostinato from the Lulu-Suite.

Der Wein was written as a study for Lulu, particularly for the jazzy aspects in that score, as demonstrated by use of the alto saxophone and piano syncopations. Recordings of this gem are not rampant; there is the regal outing of Jessye Norman, again with Pierre Boulez, more a read-through than a performance. McGreevy brings youthful exuberance to this score and the alto saxophone is a delight.

After all this, ‘Wein, Weib und Gesang’ seems a fitting conclusion. Berg wrote the arrangement when the Verein für Musikalische Privataufführungen – you had to be a member – was desperately lacking money. Schoenberg provided ‘Rosen aus dem Süden’ and Webern brought the ‘Schatzwalzer’. Ein Walzerabend it was called, taking place in 1921. A year later, the Verein closed. The performance here is only an afterthought, and it sounds like that. One wishes that the available space would have been allotted to Geraldine McGreevy and the Altenberg Lieder.

Summing up: a new slant on important repertoire in good performances and great sound. Moreover, it sells two for the price of one, thanks to the ongoing celebrations at Chandos. Thirty years of excellence!