BERG, A.: Violin Concerto / Lyric Suite / 3 Orchestral Pieces

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Alban Berg (1885-1935)

Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6 • Three Pieces from the Lyric Suite

Violin Concerto

It is a testament to Schoenberg’s thoroughness as a teacher that when he took on Alban Berg as a pupil, the nineteen-year-old could write little more than songs in strophic form, but that Berg graduated from Schoenberg’s class in 1910 with the complex and innovative String Quartet, Op. 3, behind him. After this there was something of a parting of the ways, Berg pursuing the formally, though not expressively, small-scale forms of the Altenberglieder (1911) and the Four Clarinet Pieces (1912). It took typically hard-hitting criticism from his mentor to refocus his thoughts on larger forms. Initially a vocal symphony, no doubt following the precedent of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, was planned, but what resulted was the Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6. The first two were ready for Schoenberg’s fortieth birthday on 13th September 1914, but the whole work was not finished until the following year, and Berg had to wait until 1930 for the first complete performance.

Präludium emerges tentatively from the depths, erupting briefly, then building gradually to a powerful orchestral climax. The mood, poised between yearning and agitation, becomes one of troubled calm in the long coda, the music returning to the shadows whence it came. Reigen anticipates Ravel’s La valse in its many-layered play on dance rhythms, against a background of ominous import. The music passes through several fractured climaxes, before arriving at a passage of sustained calm. Kaleidoscopic patterns on high brass and woodwind sound out over isolated tuba notes, concluding with a soft brass chord. Marsch is more of a fantasy on march rhythms than a clear-cut genre piece. Over soft tramping rhythms, the clarinet has the motif which will inform all stages of its complex progress. A related idea brings temporary calm, before the music surges towards its Mahlerian climax, replete with fateful hammer blows recalling the older composer’s Sixth Symphony. Complete collapse is avoided as the music moves through a sequence of blurred reminiscences and strident brass responses, seeming to play itself out in a tranquil coda. The martial overtones, however, are set to prevail one last time.

After the success of his opera Wozzeck (Naxos 8.660076-77) at its première in 1925, Berg returned to instrumental writing with his Chamber Concerto (1925) and Lyric Suite for string quartet (1926). Encouraged by the Kolisch Quartet’s successful première of the latter, Berg arranged the second, third and fourth of its six movements for string orchestra. The original quartet is dedicated to Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942), a quotation in the third (originally fourth) movement from the latter’s Lyric Symphony proof of a mutual friendship, as well as hinting at respective and long-undiscovered ‘love intrigues’ involving both composers at the time.

The Andante amoroso is a study in sensuous expression, its mood often taking on a more capricious and incisive character. At its centre is an elegiac interlude which presages a return of the opening music, subtly transformed, before the half-teasing, half-regretful close. The Allegro misterioso anticipates the scherzi of Bartók’s later quartets in its filigree texture and nocturnal half-lights. A Trio estatico provides vibrant contrast, before the scherzo music returns, now running backwards, to end the movement. The Adagio appassionato is the emotional epicentre of the original work, its passion fused with desperate foreboding. The music reaches a calm central point, then lurching to an explosive climax, which sets the tone for the two quartet movements to follow, before finding some measure of calm in a rapt, ethereal coda.

Berg spent most of his last seven years working on the opera Lulu. A commission from the violinist Louis Krasner for a concerto was accepted primarily for financial reasons, but the sudden death on 22nd April, 1935, of Manon Gropius, eighteen-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler-Werfel, from a brain tumour galvanized the composer. His Violin Concerto, dedicated ‘to the memory of an angel’, was completed in August 1935, though Berg himself was to die of complications resulting from a blood infection before the year was out. The concerto was first performed by Krasner, with the Pau Casals Orchestra and Hermann Scherchen, in Barcelona on 19th April, 1936.

The concerto is in two parts, each consisting of two linked movements, with the overall progression birth-life-death-transfiguration. The Andante opens with a rising scalic motion on woodwind and harp, the soloist responding almost as if tuning up. From this deceptively simple beginning emerges an expressive theme on lower strings, taken up by the soloist as a brief but decisive apex is reached. A varied reprise ensues, effecting a return to the movement’s beginning. The Allegretto is a leisurely-paced scherzo, the initial clarinet theme shared with the soloist in a dance-like motion. A contrasting trio section injects a degree of urgency into the music, before the return of the main idea. Berg now surprises the listener by introducing a Carinthian folk-tune, an episode of exquisite tenderness all-too-quickly blown away by the return of the strident trio music. The Allegro opens dramatically, the soloist drawn into impassioned discourse with the antagonistic orchestra. An extended central section evens out tension, in what is an accompanied cadenza for the soloist against a sparse and ever-changing orchestral backdrop. At length, the opening mood breaks in defiantly, the underlying ‘fate’ rhythm on timpani and bass drum dominant as the work’s violent climax is reached. Despite an overwhelming sense of catastrophe, the music attains a degree of repose in what is a linking passage to the final Adagio. Here, a Bach chorale, Es ist genug from Cantata No. 60, on organ-like woodwind provides the benediction the work has been seeking. The soloist responds with variations on the chorale, leading to an intensely cathartic climax. Brief reminiscences of the Carinthian theme and the chorale denote the passing of life into death, and the work ends as the soloist soars transcendentally above the orchestra, with just a hint of the scalic motion from its very beginning.

Richard Whitehouse
Item number 8554755
Barcode 636943475522
Release date 08/01/2002
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Hirsch, Rebecca
Hirsch, Rebecca
Composers Berg, Alban
Berg, Alban
Conductors Klas, Eri
Klas, Eri
Orchestras Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra
Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra
Disc: 1
Three Orchestral Pieces
1 Andante - Scherzo
2 Allegro - Adagio
3 Andante amoroso
4 Allegro misterioso
5 Adagio appassionato
6 Praludium
7 Reigen
8 Marsch
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