Notes from the underground

Last week, when I reviewed a CD of music of Luigi Dallapiccola, I noted that one of his great influences was the composer Alban Berg. This week, I have chosen one of the great violin concertos of this century: the Berg Violin Concerto (CD B44 1). One of the three main members of the Second Viennese School, along with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, Berg was the least progressive and most romantic of the three, leaving a small body of works that are as beautiful as they are crucial to the history of Western music.

Berg’s style is unique, combining atonality, serialism and tonally-grounded folk melodies, all with an ear for the beautiful. He did not write academic music, but was rather one of the first composers to apply the new techniques of his time to music whose aim was beauty.

His music feels more accessible than Schoenberg’s, or certainly Webern’s, because of that technique. Of these three main Second Viennese School composers, it is only Berg who has a sound affiliated with him; one can certainly describe music as “Bergian”, whereas Schoenberg and Webern left more theoretical impressions.

The Violin Concerto was written “in memory of an angel,” namely Manon Gropius, the 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler. He wrote it as her requiem, but it also served as his own, as he died soon after its completion and never heard it performed.

The concerto is in two movements, with four tempi: Andante-Allegretto in the first movement, and Allegro-Adagio in the second. Gidon Kremer, one of the great violinists of our time and the soloist in the previously-reviewed Violin Concerto of John Adams, plays the part with the soulful intensity for which he is known.

There is nothing flashy about this work. Even the most technically challenging moments blend into the overall framework in such a way that the reflective atmosphere is left undisturbed. As in his great opera “Wozzeck,” Berg integrates the solo line (in this case, the violin) into the orchestral fabric while also maintaining a degree of separation. There is very little sense of a romantic-style competition between the soloist and the orchestra. It is almost as if they have decided to work together to offer this dedication.

The Violin Concerto represents what I consider to be the best aspects of 20th century composition. Having discovered and mastered new techniques of composition, Berg found a personal sound which utilized those techniques to beautiful and perfect ends.

There are two quotes in this work, one of which is from a Bach Chorale, “Es ist genug!” That quote, which appears late in the second movement in two separate ensembles, the clarinets and the horns, is one of the most famous and striking moments in the piece. The violin presents the melody, and the other ensembles respond with the full four-part chorale harmonies, providing a moment of utter contrast to the greater complexity which surrounds it.

The Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, rounds out the CD. This work predates the Violin Concerto by two decades, and was Berg’s first purely orchestral composition. With their extreme virtuosity, they are in the manner of a “concerto for orchestra,” an idea which Bartok had not yet conceived. The three pieces complement each other well, with primal forces engaged against each other, all the while balanced by softer elements, such as the extended writing for solo violin in the second piece, “Reigen.”

The third piece, “Marsch,” is aptly described in the liner notes as conjuring up “nightmare visions” — again, Berg appeals to the sensual in a “modern” context. These pieces predate Schoenberg’s 12-tone music, but they nevertheless push the bounds of tonality to extreme degrees.

To the end, the Three Pieces for Orchestra never let you rest as they constantly pull you in new, unexpected directions. Contrasted by the Violin Concerto, the two works make a wonderful introduction both to the musical world of Alban Berg and to the possibility of liking music that one might not have expected to enjoy.