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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa