double play

Alban Berg: Seven Early Songs; Der Wein; Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op 6 Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano) Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon 445 846 2)
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The Independent Culture
'Abbado is getting more fastidious by the minute. I worry that the music is fast getting left behind. Note for note, gesture for gesture, Abbado really does a number on "Three Orchestral Pieces" '

'It's quite acceptable nowadays to stress the Viennese romantic in Berg ... but Von Otter's beguiling phrasing and tone, feeling for words and for the long singing line are exceptional'

Wine, women, song, Lulu is, of course, the woman of the moment, and Berg's concert aria Der Wein (the vine according to Baudelaire) is where her music began. A study for Lulu, the sound of Lulu, woozy jazz- age insinuations (piano, alto sax, muted trumpets) drawing the voice into provocative alliance. It's interesting to hear how naturally this intoxicating vocalise would seem to have evolved from the Brahms, Schumann, Mahler, Strauss-inflected world of the Seven Early Songs. Even before the words engage the brain, the vocal line engages the senses. Der Wein is far more interesting as vocalise than word-setting, more interesting for its overall effect (an appealing light-headedness) than its specifics. It's passing fancy: drink and be merry but don't expect to feel good about it in the morning.

Anne Sofie von Otter can feel good about this performance, and still better about the Early Songs. Her refined sensibilities sit well with them. Night, resounding night, the song of the nightingale, the promise of love, the fulfilment of dreams - you know the form. But Berg tempers Straussian amplitude with infinite subtlety. In the first song, "Nacht", the line "a single breath drifts gently from a distant grove" is but one instance of the sound - a mere tissue of sound - taking the text at its word. Von Otter, for her part, takes the word as far as the music will support it. Which is as far as you care to take it with Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic in tow. But Abbado is getting more fastidious by the minute. I worry that the music (as in characterisation) is fast getting left behind. Note for note, gesture for gesture, Abbado really does a number on the Three Pieces for Orchestra. But with focus and clarity so sharply analytical (it's almost like the score has been filleted), the extravagant surrealism of the piece is somehow diminished. For sure, one is startled by the immediacy, the impact of Berg's supernatural colours (the nightmares even Mahler never had). But must we, should we, really be hearing this much? Aided and abetted by DG's engineers, it's like experiencing the piece from the inside out, like looking at a great surrealist painting with your nose pressed up against it. Believe me, it's far scarier when you can't see the brush-strokes. ES

Put a piece of gritty, late 12-tone Schoenberg alongside one of the riper outpourings of his youth - the Piano Concerto, say, next to Verklarte Nacht - and the difference is overwhelming; there are connections too, but you have to look for them. Put late, 12-tone Berg - eg, Der Wein - next to the Seven Early Songs and it's the similarities that stand out. Serialism may have heightened Berg's dark, voluptuous chromaticism, but it was only a case of extending and enriching what was already there. There are new things in Der Wein - grotesque irony, astringent colours and harmonies, even bolder vocal-writing. But so much is familiar, especially the singer's first line: for a moment, it's as if the intervening quarter-century counted for nothing.

All this is particularly striking in this new recording. It's quite acceptable nowadays to stress the Viennese romantic in Berg - to care a little less about reinforcing his 20th-century pioneer status - but Von Otter's beguiling phrasing and tone, feeling for words and for the long, singing line are exceptional. Both Der Wein and the Early Songs are pure delight. As accompanists, Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic are more than able, and they manage to make more sense of the dense, swarming textures of the Three Pieces for Orchestra (with a little discreet help from the recording team?) than most other competitors. Abbado also shows more relish for the Bergian Grand Guignol - until the final gesture (a powerful anticipation of the climactic sex- murder in Lulu); here Jack the Ripper seems to lose heart at the last moment. Still, for the songs, a five-star recommendation. SJ

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