Berg: Seven Early Songs; Der Wein; Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6

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COMPOSERS: Berg
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Seven Early Songs; Der Wein; Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6
PERFORMER: Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano); Vienna PO/Claudio Abbado
CATALOGUE NO: 445 846-2 DDD
Of the three composers of the Second Viennese School, Alban Berg is on one level the most approachable. His music is radiant with the melodic and harmonic gestures of musical Romanticism, particularly of the Viennese variety; in fact there’s hardly a piece of Berg that doesn’t slip into a waltz at some point, albeit with a sardonic tone that’s half regretful, half mocking.

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This is the side of Berg that Abbado brings out. These performances are bathed in a kind of sunset glow; the orchestral sound is unfailingly beautiful, with the harsher colours and more violent moments perfectly blended with the ingratiating and tender ones. Anne Sofie von Otter is equally discreet. Her performance is never exaggerated, always beautifully rounded. But this velvet-glove approach misses the essential things about Berg, the things that make him a true modern.

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To begin with, Berg’s forms are fantastically complicated, full of parallelisms, mirrorings and secret codes. Pierre Boulez describes them as a labyrinth of meanings, and his performances have the nervous energy and clarity of line that allow you to see the labyrinth, even if they can’t lead you through it. But more important is the pathological vein in Berg, the undercurrent of violence and corruption that gives it its unique flavour. Ashkenazy’s performance of the songs and orchestral pieces on Decca captures this flavour perfectly. Abbado, by comparison, seems altogether too clean and well-mannered. Ivan Hewett