Berg & Beethoven: Violin Concertos (CD review)

Isabelle Faust, violin; Claudio Abbado, Orchestra Mozart. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902105.

Alban Berg (1885-1935) was an Austrian composer of the modern era. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was a German composer of the late Classical-early Romantic period. What's the connection?  I mean, there's always a connection when musicians (or producers) pair up different composers on a disc. The album's back-cover note says it's all about "dialogue." Berg, it seems, set his concerto "on the threshold between tradition and revolution, between tonal music and the nascent 'serial' aesthetic; a century earlier, Beethoven had deconstructed formal Classicism to raise the solo violin to the status of a subject in its own right." Apparently, that's the connection, and a rather tenuous one it seems to me. OK, both works are "revolutionary" in their way, I suppose. The main thing is that they are good music.

It's especially reassuring to hear from Maestro Claudio Abbado again, this time as Artistic Director of the Orchestra Mozart, an ensemble formed in 2004 from "a number of instrumentalists of international standard." It's an orchestra of modest size but makes a big yet intimate sound. They handle both the early and late works with equal skill. And, of course, it's always nice to hear from German violinist Isabelle Faust, a musician of wide accomplishment whose name, unaccountably, a lot of people probably wouldn't recognize. Yet her very first recording won a Gramophone Award in 1997, she's won various other prestigious awards and competitions over the years, she enjoys a highly successful solo career, and she boasts an extensive discography. Suitable for a virtuoso of Ms. Faust's caliber, she plays a 1704 Stradivarius, the "Sleeping Beauty," on loan from the Land Bank Baden-Wurttemberg..

The album opens with Berg's Violin Concerto, which begins slows, softly, mysteriously. There's almost an eerie quality about it, which Ms. Faust explores and exploits nicely. Berg subtitled the piece "To the Memory of an Angel," a reference to the death of a close young friend, Manon Gropius, daughter of the architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler. The concerto acts as a sort of Requiem, then, for her death, helping Berg to relieve his mind. It is both mournful and, in a celebratory way, joyous, lyrical, and melodic. As per Berg's wishes, neither the violin nor the orchestra dominates the performance, each a joint partner in the enterprise. The second and final movement becomes a bit more raucous in the manner of much modern music, bringing with it a curious tenderness, which again Ms. Faust presents in a most-touching manner, especially as the violin leads into a Bach-like chorale at the end.

As moving as the Romantic-Modern Berg concerto is, it cannot compete in the face of Beethoven's monumental and purely Romantic Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61, which still towers above almost everything else in its field. However, I don't think I've ever heard the concerto played more gently or more sweetly than it is here, perhaps to make the connection with the preceding Berg more obvious. Not that the pace is at all slow; indeed, Abbado keeps the tempos moving at a pleasantly moderate speed and never indulges in any untoward oddities of phrasing. It's simply a refined, pastoral, reflective interpretation, with Ms. Faust's violin singing meditatively and beautifully.

Harmonia Mundi recorded the music in November, 2010, at the Auditorio Manzoni, Bologna, Italy. Both the violin and the orchestra sound fairly close-up, providing plenty of detail at the expense of much depth of field (at least in the Berg; the Beethoven is a little better in terms of front-to-back dimensionality). There is excellent definition throughout, however, exemplary smoothness, and a good, taut impact in the lower-to-mid bass. Even in the Beethoven, it's not a particularly big sound; nevertheless, it seems to fit the music, and its effortlessness always caresses the ear most agreeably.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa