Alban Berg: Orchestral Works

McGreevy, Murray, van Keulen; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Venzago (Chandos CHSA 5074(2))

31 March 2009 3 stars

BergBerg was notoriously lazy. His wife would lock him up to try and force him to do some work, but the wily composer kept a bottle of brandy secreted away in his study for just such occasions. That's why his complete orchestral works, even when generously supplemented by arrangements and orchestrations as they are here, fit nicely onto just two discs.

The extras provide one of the main attractions. There is the premiere recording of the concert aria 'Der Wein' sung in the French of the original Baudelaire poem rather than the usual German, and by a tenor rather than a soprano. Robert Murray's mellifluous French singing blends beautifully with Berg's atmospheric score in what turns out to be a revelatory reading. The original version, sung by Geraldine McGreevy, is included for comparison. She also takes the roles of Lulu in the Symphonic Pieces from the Opera Lulu and Marie in Three fragments from Wozzeck. 'Der Wein' lies very comfortably within her range and she gives a beautifully shaped account. However, she does have a tendency to sound a little harsh and unpleasant when stretching for those high notes in the operatic roles.

Another extra, the 1984 orchestration of the Op. 1 piano sonata by Dutch composer Theo Verbey, does not belong in the same league as Colin Matthews's version of the Debussy preludes reviewed last week. He hasn't managed to rethink the work so that it sounds like a genuine orchestral piece. He is consistent over the course of the work so that the thematic links are clear, but there doesn't seem to be any compelling reason why he's chosen a particular instrument or group of instruments over another. It's a competent rendering and illuminating to anyone who plays the sonata, but not really worthwhile in its own right.

The other main attraction is the quality of the recorded sound which, as so often with Chandos, is clear and lively. The distinctiveness of the instruments is more than usually apparent, so that the trombones, for example, sound particularly trombone-like. This is especially striking in the Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, where the individual sonorities of the instruments stand out, even against a dense orchestral background.

However, I think the sound engineers need to take around half the blame for ruining the violin concerto here. In his work Berg insists on a threefold hierarchical grouping of voices. Firstly there is the Hauptstimme (the main voice), then the Nebenstimme (the subsidiary voice) and finally the background. These are marked clearly throughout the concerto whether they occur in the solo part or in various combinations of orchestral players. In some cases where the violin has the Nebenstimme he explicitly writes 'Hauptstimme durch lassen!' (let the main voice through!) above the violin part. There is no doubting that Isabelle van Keulen has a wonderfully robust full-bodied tone and is technically impressive, but there is no variation in her position at the front of the texture across the whole length of the work. Even when she is accompanying with a pianissimo tremolando and the Hauptstimme is in the trombones, she is placed well into the foreground confounding Berg's meticulous design.

The other half of the blame, I'm afraid, lies with some indeterminate combination of soloist and conductor Mario Venzago. Berg's post-expressionist style relies on creating a great diversity of moods within short time-spans as well as long. What we get instead is a numbing monotony in both. In the opening few pages there are markings like delicato or grazioso but neither of these desired shifts in nuance register. In the second part of the first movement an almost Mahlerian scherzo tries to break out. But, rather than giving into a more light-hearted approach, it is treated with the same seriousness as the opening.

Showing that they did have a lighter side to their personalities, and in order to make ends meet in those lean years after the war, Schoenberg, Berg and even Webern all made affectionate arrangements of Strauss waltzes. Berg's contribution, an arrangement of the delightfully tuneful Wein, Weib und Gesang for piano, string quartet and harmonium, here sees the string quartet replaced by a small string ensemble – presumably in order to justify its inclusion on a CD of 'orchestral works'. The players obviously have fun with this charming little piece and it provides a useful antidote to the ascetic view of Berg that guides the performance of the violin concerto.

This is a good disc for the Berg enthusiast: the new recording of 'Der Wein', the completion of the student Passacaglia from 1913 and the orchestration of the Piano Sonata are all definitely worth hearing. Since it contains most of his more accessible music, it would also serve as a good introduction to the composer. But be warned: if you end up liking it, you will need to go out and buy yourself a decent version of the violin concerto at a later date.

By Marc Brooks


UchidaRelated articles:

CD Review: Berg and Mahler from Mitsuko Uchida, Esa Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia
CD Review: Colin Matthews' Debussy orchestrations (Hallé)
CD Review: Second Viennese School arangements of Strauss Waltzes (Ambroisie)
DVD Review: Wozzeck from the Teatro Liceu (Opus Arte)