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Monday, September 10, 2012

Alban Berg, "Alban Berg: Violin Concerto, Igor Stravinsky: Violin Concerto"

Alban Berg
"Alban Berg: Violin Concerto, Igor Stravinsky: Violin Concerto"
Koch International Classics (2002)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

I've never attended a very formal classical music performance. No, that's not the right wording. I've been to several classical performances but it's never focused around one composer. It's always been an amalgamation of two or three musicians. That being said, I can pick out themes. For example if the first segment highlights Tchaikovsky, it makes sense if fellow Russian Romantic Sergei Rachmaninoff were to follow. For Alban Berg's violin concerto, it would make sense to pair it with something from Schoenberg perhaps. In this case however, those in charge at the Budapest Festival Orchestra chose Stravinsky's violin concerto. This combination doesn't make much sense at all.

It's easy to look at the simple titles of the two pieces and say "Of course it makes sense! They're both violin concertos!" The time between the writing of both pieces is also minimal: a mere four years. And yet the approaches of the two composers couldn't be more different. Berg, as we learned last post when we looked at his opera "Wozzeck," buys into the theory of atonality, or avoiding a set key. Stravinsky, although a writer in multiple styles throughout his career, takes a more Romantic route in his concerto. I suppose it is entirely possible to have an atonal Romantic-style concerto, but what I mean to say is that Stravinsky DOES set a key, and that makes most of the difference.

Moon is correct to base this entry in the book around Berg, with no offense meant to Stravinsky. This is one of the most emotive violin parts I've ever heard, and soloist Mark Kaplan really draws out the wails and moans from his instrument. Berg never sets a key of course, and it's not entirely accurate to summarize this two-part piece as "minor," but it's definitely dark. The "haunted house" (to use Moon's words) effect from the violin, coupled with the frequently discordant backing orchestra add to the effect. Berg was reportedly looking to capture a human element in the violin of original player Louis Krasner, which explains some of the less-than-smooth tones.

If this description of Berg's work doesn't sound like something you'd enjoy, perhaps skip to the second half of the performance, Kaplan's version of Stravinsky's violin concerto. For one thing, it's in a major key. Another thing, it has a key. This makes it a bit more happy and listenable for mainstream audiences. The opening Toccata movement is reminiscent of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite," and it's easy to understand how Stravinsky's concerto was twice adapted into ballet.

There will be more Stravinksy later however, so let's put the emphasis on Berg for now. If you only stick around for one half of his concerto, make it the second half; it features the more intense emotions of the two parts. I'd listen to the whole album however; you probably won't hear these two matched up again anytime soon.

INTERESTING FACT: If you enjoy code breaking, you know that secret messages can be transcribed in almost anything. Berg hid secret references to his affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin in his composition "Lyric Suite." The signature motif A-B-flat-H-F formed the duo's initials, and he quoted a melody from Zemlinsky that was matched with the words "You are mine own" in Zemlimsky's "Lyric Symphony."

Alban Berg Violin Concerto; "To the memory of an angel": Allegro - Adagio - (coda) by Berg on Grooveshark (note: Not the version you're supposed to listen to, but the closest thing I could find online)

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