Andrew Palmer, Group Editor

Classical Music: Berg Violin Concerto

Berg Violin Concerto

Violin Concerto; Three Orchestral Pieces Op 6; Piano Sonata Op 1(orch. Sir Andrew Davis) Passacaglia (orch. Sir Andrew Davis)

James Ehnes violin Sir Andrew Davis BBC Symphony Orchestra

Chandos CHSA 5270

Alban Berg may not be on your radar, but this new release puts forward a good case as to why he should be. The pairing of James Ehnes with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis opens a sound world that I wasn’t quite expecting.

Born in 1885, Berg, a student of Schoenberg, was one of the most significant composers of the Second Viennese School, whose output proved tremendously influential in the development of music in the twentieth century.

Gavin Plumley’s notes and a short essay from Sir Andrew Davis are interesting, setting out the context for the repertoire recorded on this disc.

Sir Andrew Davis explains that whilst both the Piano Sonata and Passacaglia have been recorded before, he feels the sonorities of the era – Berg was greedily immersing himself in the Vienna of Mahler, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Schreker et al – had yet to be matched. Davis' insight into Berg provides a fresh interpretation on orchestration and understanding the links with Berg's contemporaries.

His arrangement of the Piano Sonata has warmth and depth. He uses a large band of musicians, including triple woodwind, with an extra clarinet and oboe d’amore, instruments which Berg never used but the timbres of which, Davis felt could bring certain special colours to the undertaking.

As with the sonata, Davis arranged the Passacaglia fragment (a mere four minutes long) in 2021, producing a short haunting score, where he takes the theme and develops eleven variations with lovely contributions from across all orchestral departments.

His observations and knowledge also help appreciate how Berg could have evolved had his early death at the age 50, from an abscess caused by an insect sting, not robbed the musical world of a 20th century composer who George Perle remarked, looked liked its most forward-looking composer.

The Three Orchestral Pieces are given an excellent performance.

Sir Andrew Davis fell in love with the Violin Concerto at the age of 14 and has not fallen out of that love and it shows in this recording, where, with James Ehnes who is in total accord with Davis’ thinking produces a performance that is not as stark as some interpretations I have heard. It has a gravitas that invites the listener to contemplate a more and warm engaging rendition especially at the close of the concerto where the rapport between soloist and conductor shines through.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra give a consummate performance and the sound and range of tonal colours are splendidly captured.