Violin Concerto Import
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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. --Thomas May
The music of this concerto is quite interesting as I have never heard such an ingenius combination of 12-tone writing with tonal undercurrents. Berg has been described as the most accessible of "The Second Viennese School," which included his teacher and 12-tone pioneer Arnold Schoenberg and composer Anton Webern. I think the reason Berg is more accessible is because he combined the innovations of the 12-tone method with Romantic expression and lyricism. All of Berg's works are marked by this kind of "tug-of-war" between Schoenberg's Modernism and Mahlerian Romanticism and expression. I think that even though Schoenberg was the pioneer of this method of composition and composed some really innovative music that Berg was the better composer. This, of course, is purely subjective.
This recording of Berg's "Violin Concerto" has been hailed by critics and fans alike. Anne-Sophie Mutter turns in one of her most remarkable performances I think. She is completely committed to Berg's vision and translates the pain and anguish he felt during this time. James Levine also turns in a remarkable performance. His accompaniment is responsive, emotional, dedicated, and passionate. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra are simply outstanding and play wonderfully. The audio quality is also top-notch.
The other work on this recording titled "Time Chant" composed by Wolfgang Rihm for Mutter is of less interest to me. After hearing the Berg, this work seems oddly out-of-place. Another work by Berg would have been more appropriate like his "Three Pieces For Orchestra" or his "Lulu Suite."
Anyway, this is really an ear-opening recording and those interested in Berg's work should start here. Highly recommended.
If you're really enchanted with this concerto, then get this 8-CD Berg collection as it will be all one truly needs:
Alban Berg Collection, Deutsche Grammophon, 8-CDs
Mutter in my experience is a brilliant violinist. Her set of Beethoven violin sonatas is remarkable and a live performance of the Brahms 1st Trio I heard her do in New York together with Lynn Harrell and Andre Previn a few years back was one of the most inspired live chamber music performances in my memory. She has been so promoted and “sponsored” by famous musicians like Herbert von Karajan that the hype almost seems to obscure her deep excellence and the fact that she is something of a risk-taker as a performer.
This Berg Concerto has to count as one of her big achievements. The sound world she conjures with James Levine and the Chicago Symphony is sultry and dark. This disc, as other reviewers have noted, is incredibly well-engineered. It’s a notable recording just from the sonic perspective. Beyond that, Mutter feels the music and imposes her vision on the orchestra to provide a unified and inspired performance of the opening movement pair.
Any criticism I would level at this release has to do with the compositions, never the performance or engineering. I think that first Andante-Allegro movement pair in the Berg is beautiful, with the tonal references and quotations of Bach and an Austrian folk song woven into the twelve-tone writing. The Concerto certainly marks one of the high points from the New Viennese School of which Berg was a member, but I have never found the second movement pair, titled Cadenza/Chorale Variations, as gripping as the first. Only half of the Concerto, for my taste, is truly exceptional.
Mutter has included a more recent work, “Time Chant”, a 1992 opus from the prolific German modernist Wolfgang Rihm. “Time Chant” emphasizes the lead melody presented by the violin soloist, with the orchestra providing an elaboration of this lead line in very much a subordinate role. So the work would depend on a strongly interesting lead melodic line. The first few minutes of “Time Chant” are quite taking but the work, stretching out to 25 minutes, wears out its welcome with Rihm’s melodic writing doesn’t succeed in supporting the weight he puts on it. Atonal music is very hard to write and realizing long consistently successful passages of it across nearly half an hour seems almost inhumanly difficult. This is for me illustrated by both the Berg concerto and Rihm’s “Time Chant”, which both have their on and off moments.
The quality of the performance from Mutter and the CSO makes this a clear-cut 5-star release. If I have some reservations about some of the music being played – just some of it – it’s overridden by other sections of utter beauty.