The sleazy, intoxicating world of Berg, plus the best recent classical CDs

Classical CD reviews
Classical CD reviews

Berg: Violin Concerto, Three Orchestral Pieces – BBC Symphony Orchestra ★★★★★

Come within hearing distance of the music of Alban Berg (1885-1935) and there’s an awful danger you’ll enter a vortex from which there’s no escape. The Austrian composer’s music has a peculiar drugged beauty, at once corrupt and glowing with a strange light, which makes the mundanities of this world hard to bear. The perfect expression of Berg’s special genius is his almost-completed opera Lulu, where all the characters including Lulu herself are destroyed by her infinite sexual allure. Berg’s music doesn’t just evoke that allure, it becomes it. You sink into the music’s over-ripe, almost-sleazy, vibraphone-and-saxophone drenched world with a guilty sense of enjoyment, and just a slight tinge of anxiety that you’ll never re-emerge.

The music on this new CD occasionally opens a door onto that world. In the second of the Three Orchestral Pieces (such a dull title for three of the greatest musical phantasmagorias ever penned) we seem to enter that world after a fiery apocalypse has destroyed it, and only a few regretful, yearning ghosts are left to flit about the embers. It’s an effect beautifully realised in this quietly incandescent performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The orchestra plays wonderfully, but much credit is also due to conductor Andrew Davis. He’s known mostly as the bluff jovial conductor of bluff, jovial English music with a secret sad heart – an emotional ambiguity he understands better than anyone. This disc shows he has just as keen an insight into Berg’s world. He’s even orchestrated two early works, the Piano Sonata and the unfinished Passacaglia, both of which appear on this CD. His arrangements are masterly, probably better than the composer himself would have managed, as he had a tendency to over-orchestrate. That’s a particular problem with the third of the Three Orchestral Pieces, a nightmarish march which given the date of composition (1914-15) seems like a portrait of an entire civilisation marching to its destruction. But here it seems ideally lucid, and the increase in tension towards the final stroke of doom is perfectly calibrated.

All this is wonderful, but it’s the performance of Berg’s last completed work, the Violin Concerto, which is the real heart of the CD. The soloist James Ehnes gives a rapt tender glow to the solo part, revealing many telling details that often pass by unnoticed. “To the memory of an angel” was the dedication Berg inscribed on his manuscript, referring to the death of the Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius. Though Manon herself was no angel, the piece certainly acquires – after passing through much anger and sorrow – an angelic quality. One could think of this piece as the radiant counterpart to Lulu. There, love and goodness are barely glimpsed through the sleaze; here, in this wonderful performance, they shine out perfectly.

Berg – Violin Concerto, Three Orchestral Pieces is released by Chandos

The Playhouse Sessions – Bjarte Eike & Barokksolistene ★★★★★

This wonderful album takes us back to a time before that stiff, formal artefact we call “classical music” had come into being, when composers rubbed shoulders with actors and folk singers in disreputable playhouses and taverns, and a folk song could migrate from the street to the theatre and even a nobleman’s grand house.

That time was England in the 16th and 17th centuries, the happy hunting ground of the Norwegian performing group Barokksolistene. Its director, the violinist and singer Bjarte Eike is particularly fascinated by the period of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, when playhouses and public music-making were banned, and out-of-work actors and musicians had to live a clandestine existence in taverns and public houses. The group’s first album “The Alehouse Sessions” celebrated that era, but since then the group has moved into the theatre and opera house. Eike himself has played Puck in a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as playing the violin, with the other members of the group also on-stage.

This new album celebrates that world, with songs from Shakespeare’s plays, and later plays and operas, mingled with dances and folk-songs, with a couple of Norwegian tunes thrown in for good measure. Eike himself has even composed a new Shakespeare setting.

It's not the first time “period instrument” groups have explored this repertoire, but the English groups tend to be more respectful of the sources, and their attempts at rustic spontaneity tend to sound clichéd – for some reason, when English Baroque singers do a folk song they always sound like a West Country yokel.

There are no yokels to be heard on this album, and the Norwegian group are not at all respectful of the sources. The 11 players and singers perform on a charango (an Andean form of guitar), harmonium and some exotic percussion alongside the familiar harpsichord, violins and double-bass, which purists wouldn’t approve of. But what a colourful noise they make, subtle as well rhythmically emphatic. The vocal numbers have a tinge of Norwegian accent, which might bother some – it certainly didn’t bother me.

What Eike understands is that to bring this distant world to life for contemporary audiences, it’s not enough to recreate it literally. You have to mobilise people’s imaginations and feelings, which the group does with great flair and sensitivity.  A wonderful example is Purcell’s song “Oft she Visits This Lone Mountain” from his opera The Fairy Queen, which assembles itself from scraps of sound on guitar, harpsichord and bass, before Berit Norbakken’s beautifully soft rendition of the song itself. It exemplifies the way this group catches the magic and mystery of the music, as well as its bawdy humour and rumbustious energy.

The Playhouse Sessions is released by Rubicon Classics

Bach: Italian Concerto, French Overture – Mahan Esfahani ★★★★★

JS Bach may the great fons et origo of Western art music, but quite a few people are simply allergic to his music. This is understandable. In a bad performance his fugues can seem dry and pedantic, and those perpetual-motion dances can simply churn away like some infernal musical knitting-machine. If the sufferer also has an allergy to the sound of the harpsichord – again, not uncommon – then this new album of two hefty masterworks, the Italian Concerto and the French Overture, plus the four rarely heard Duets and two very early pieces might seem the most exquisite torture.

But if they try it, I’d be willing to bet it would bring them joy, as the performer is Mahan Esfahani, the Iranian-born, American-raised and now Czech-domiciled harpsichordist. Esfahani won a string of awards in his youth, including a BBC New Generation artist and Borletti-Buitoni Award. He is as passionate about contemporary harpsichord music as he is about the great pre-classical composers from Frescobaldi to CPE Bach, the familiar territory for harpsichordists from which only a few adventurous players stray.

Esfahani’s performances of Bach are dramatic and highly coloured in a way which often subverts the ideology of “period performance”, which in recent decades has been the guiding light of most harpsichordists. That ideology says: study the sources, play on exact replicas of old instruments, and above all strive to catch older styles of playing, in an effort to give listeners “what the composer wanted”. Esfahani is far too smart to be taken in by this idea, which is impossible in practice as well as being dubious in principle. He never forgets he is playing for 21st-century audiences, not a bunch of 18th-century aristocrats in an ancien régime palace. At the same time he is fascinated by old styles and old sources, and really wants to be true to the composer – in his own way.

Mahan Esfahani - Kaja Smith
Mahan Esfahani - Kaja Smith

The result is something poised tantalisingly between “then” and “now”. Many of the pieces are in dance form, but Esfahani doesn’t piously recreate the rhythm of the dance; instead he pulls the rhythms around in a way that reminds you of a great pianist moulding a Chopin waltz. Those knitting-machine fast movements are intelligently marked out by pauses, so you become aware of the grand harmonic changes beneath the incessant patter of notes. The music jumps into vivid relief, an effect magnified hugely by the prismatic variety of rich, jangling colours Esfahani conjures from his custom-made harpsichord. In the performance of Bach’s very early “Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother” Esfahani adds laugh-out-loud wit and imaginative recreation to the mix. In all these performances are a marvel. Never has Bach seemed less dry and more full of fantasy.

Bach: Italian Concerto, French Overture is released by Hyperion

Igor Levit: Tristan ★★★☆☆

Not many pianists in their thirties have had a two-hour film documentary made about them and been decorated by the German Chancellor, but there’s no doubt Levit stands apart from his peers in sheer seriousness. In his recent recording projects for Sony Classical, Levit has harnessed music to bigger themes: how to face death in Life from 2018 and the idea of transcendence in Encounter from 2020. The title of his latest album, Tristan, tells us that it deals with ideas of love, death and transcendence: three key ideas in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the opera where erotic passion becomes a gateway to a Nirvana that is hard to distinguish from oblivion.

There are two self-contained pieces from that opera that express these ideas in concentrated form. One is the final Liebestod, or “Love Death” which was brilliantly reconceived for piano by Wagner’s father-in-law Franz Liszt. The other is the Prelude, which Liszt wisely didn’t attempt to arrange, as its yearning melodic phrases and pregnant pauses are so fundamentally unpianistic. Pianists less wise than Liszt have tried, including Hungarian virtuoso Zoltán Kocsis, and it’s his version of the Prelude that Levit includes on this album.

It’s not the only fundamentally unpianistic piece on this enormously ambitious double-CD album. There’s also all 28 minutes of the huge, slow, agonised Adagio from Mahler’s 10th Symphony, in the arrangement by Ronald Stevenson. And there’s the 52-minute, six-movement concerto for piano, orchestra, and pre-recorded tapes entitled Tristan by the German composer Hans Werner Henze. It’s a strange haunted piece, in which the piano often hovers at the edge of audibility, while the Gewandhaus Orchestra from Leipzig conjures ghosts of Western music’s past, including Brahms’s First Symphony, Chopin’s famous Funeral March, bits of Mahler, and of course Wagner’s Tristan. From time to time recorded sounds, including a boy reciting part of the medieval Tristan legend, add to the feeling of alienation and distress.

Supremely intelligent hands: Igor Levit - Felix Broede
Supremely intelligent hands: Igor Levit - Felix Broede

One has to admire the ambition of the album, but genuine musical pleasures are somewhat thin on the ground. In Kocsis’s arrangement of the Tristan Prelude, Levit adopts an enormously slow tempo that might work for a huge orchestra but definitely does not work for the piano. In Mahler’s Adagio this problem is exacerbated by the vastly complex harmonies, which two hands – even the supremely intelligent hands of Igor Levit – simply can’t grasp.

As for Henze’s Tristan, it has wonderful luminous moments, but it’s hard to make overall sense of the narrative. The album’s best moments are those where Levit simply plays a proper piano piece beautifully – as he does in Liszt’s well known Third Liebestraum and Harmonies du Soir. There’s more genuine transcendence in these short pieces than in all the windy obscurities elsewhere.

Tristan is released by Sony Classical

Dvořák: Legends Op 59, Czech Suite Op 39 – WDR Sinfonieorchester ★★★★☆

For sheer melodic charm the late 19th-century Czech composer Antonin Dvořák is hard to beat, partly because his melodies have such a strong “spirit of place”. That place is always his native Bohemia, even in the New World Symphony, which even though ostensibly inspired by America sounds to my ear as Bohemian as any of his works.

Ardent Czech cultural nationalist though he was, Dvořák was also keen to elevate his music to the more serious, prestigious, Germanic plane of “absolute music”. That’s why there are nine symphonies in his output and numerous chamber works with unimpeachably abstract titles like “string quartet” and “piano trio”, alongside those works with more picturesque titles like the opera Rusalka, and Hymn of the Czech Peasants, where his love of Czech folk music comes to the fore.

The two works on this new CD are a fascinating halfway house between abstraction and the picturesque. The title of the 10-movement orchestral suite “Legends”, composed in 1880, may suggest we’re going to hear old stories etched in musical notes. But Dvořák gave no titles to say what the legends might be, which is why the work’s dedicatee, the severe Viennese critic and champion of “absolute music” Eduard Hanslick, was so keen to praise them. “Dvořák is too much of a real musician to want to paint with notes,” he wrote about these pieces. “He does not bind the listener’s imagination to any poetic programme.”

Cristian Măcelaru
Cristian Măcelaru

Dvořák may not bind the listener’s imagination, but he certainly stimulates it. In the second movement there’s a sharp twist in the harmony, married to a sudden change of sound and tone, which irresistibly suggests a turning point in a story, and later there’s a pleading melodic phrase answered by another expressing stern resolution. A woman pleading with her lover not to go to war, perhaps? The final piece begins with a stately yet vigorous idea which evokes a medieval pageant.

The conductor Cristian Măcelaru is alert to these picturesque moments, as are the players of the excellent West German Radio Symphony Orchestra. But they don’t overdo them, with the result that the picturesque moments are exactly that: moments, which are soon swept up in the purely musical pleasures of these endlessly inventive little five-minute pieces. The same is true of the companion piece, the Czech Suite, composed the previous year. The five movements are based on courtly dances, three of which have become popular favourites and constantly crop up on Classic FM’s playlists. Like all lollipops they’ve become worn out from over-use, but in these excellent performances they come fresh and new.

Dvořák: Legends Op 59, Czech Suite Op 39 is released by LINN

Heinrich Biber: Sonatae Violino Solo 1681 – Plamena Nikitassova & Les Élémens ★★★★★

Well before Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was even a gleam in his father’s eye, Salzburg had already nurtured a great composer. Born 15 years before Henry Purcell, Biber arrived at the court of the Prince-Archbishop in 1671 as a humble “stoker of fires”, valet de chambre and violinist (multi-tasking was absolutely the norm in those days), but his brilliance as a performer and composer meant he soon rose up the ranks. What made his name all over Europe was the publication in 1681 of Eight Sonatas for Violin and Basso Continuo (this means a supporting group that creates a harmonic cushion and rhythmic underpinning for the soloist). The Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg was so pleased he made Biber boss of his entire musical establishment. A few years later he was knighted by the Holy Roman Emperor.

But fashion changed, and Biber’s sonatas vanished from the scene, as nearly all music does. Fortunately they’ve been rescued, thanks to our culture’s obsession with rediscovering old composers and figuring out how to perform their fascinating but culturally remote works. This new recording of all eight sonatas on two CDs comes from the Basel-based group Les Élémens, and what a wonderful sound they make, with the thrummings of Baroque guitar, theorbo (bass lute) and harpsichord offset by the grave bass viol and fluty-sounding organ.

Dominating all this with superb panache is the Bulgarian-born violinist Plamena Nikitassova. She’s a true Baroque-style virtuoso in the mould of violinists like the Italian Enrico Onofri, and like him she’s immersed herself in the violin-playing instruction manuals of the time, so as to throw off the habits of “normal” violin playing and recapture the older style. She uses the correct very short bow, held in a particular way to facilitate fast runs, and she places the violin low down on the chest like a folk-fiddler.

While Onofri does this to imitate the tender, pleading quality of an opera singer, Nikitassova is all fire and dash. The speed of her bow hand in the fast runs has to be heard to be believed, but she also catches the elegant two-part writing of the Eighth sonata, which is really a two-violin sonata for one player. In the numerous pieces built over a repeating bass (which was also a favourite trick of Henry Purcell) she builds a tidal wave of rhythmic excitement. It’s thrilling because it mirrors the way Biber’s music so often bursts out of its strict formal confines into rhapsodic freedom. Her playing seems utterly spontaneous and yet it’s faithful to the composer’s intentions – which is what the best music-making always is.

Sonatae Violino Solo 1681 is released by CPO