Berg Orchestral & Chamber Works

Author: 
Robert Layton

Berg Orchestral & Chamber Works

  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, 'To the memory of an angel'
  • Lyric Suite

This is an extraordinary issue of more than mere documentary interest. Older readers may remember hearing during the war Louis Krasner's long-deleted Columbia recording of the Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra under Artur Rodzinski on 78s, when it was periodically broadcast. Krasner commissioned the piece and had just given the first performance at the 1936 ISCM Festival in Barcelona (with Hermann Scherchen conducting) only three months after Berg's death. Webern was to have conducted on this occasion but withdrew at the last moment much to the consternation of the BBC who had booked him for the following month with (it would seem) some misgivings. Fortunately adequate rehearsal time had been allotted and the players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra proved more expert in coping with the score than their Barcelona colleagues. The latter, for all their dedication and enthusiasm, must have been under some strain since the Civil War was on the point of breaking out.
Webern had appeared on a number of occasions with the BBC orchestra, but no recording of him survives in the BBC Archives. Lewis Foreman has recounted elsewhere in this issue the circumstances in which the acetates from which this disc derives came to light (see page 24). Berg's death in December 1935 had shocked the musical world, though not as much as the death of the 18year-old Manon Gropius had shaken the composer, who wrote the concerto as a memorial to her. The disc is exceptionally well documented and reproduces interesting notes by Krasner himself, a note on transcribing the 78s by Richard Burns and Foreman's 1985 Royal Music Association paper on Webern and the BBC.
What strikes one most of all about this performance is what I can only call its glowing intensity There is no sense of the barline or of the music ever being 'moved on'; time seems to stand still and yet there is also a natural sense of musical pace. The surface noise on this recording, made before an invited audience in the Concert Hall of Broadcasting House, London, cannot disguise the care with which the textures are balanced and the finesse of the wind players. This was only the work's second performance and yet the players sound as if they had lived with the music all their lives. (Koussevitzky's first performances of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra and Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony have this same quality of communicating the freshness and enthusiasm of discovery with a commanding musical authority.) It has all the anguish and poignancy this music demands and Krasner is as eloquent here as he is in the later Columbia recording.
The opening bars suffer from some minor audience coughs and the surface noise and moments of distortion call for a tolerance that is well worth extending. It is obvious that those taking part were well aware that this was no ordinary occasion, and this atmosphere is vividly conveyed. Given the size of the Concert Hall there is a generous amount of space round the sound, and the BBC balance is very natural—the violin almost disappearing at times in tutti passages as it would in a concert-hall environment.
The Galimir Quartet specialized in contemporary music (I have two 10-inch-Decca-Polydor 78s of Milhaud's Seventh Quartet made at about the same time) and their playing has commendable ensemble and dedication. Unfortunately their pioneering account of the Lyric Suite, recorded shortly before the performance of the Violin Concerto took place, was hampered by a very dry acoustic and this must have deterred many other listeners. It was the only version for many years and in spite of its musical excellence cannot have made many new friends for the work. The dry sound worried me at the time I first heard this recording, and still does, but that should not deter collectors from investigating this remarkable issue.'

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