ViennaRevisited_E-flyer-1_248wA few signposts can help listeners navigate their way through a piece that might otherwise prove baffling. So it proved for me at the recent (splendid) performance of Berg’s Chamber Concerto by Aurora, Anthony Marwood (violin) and Alexander Melnikov (piano), part of the Vienna Revisited festival at London’s Kings Place. I had listened to recordings a few times, but wasn’t making too much progress until I read the chapter on the work from Karen Monson’s 1979 biography Alban Berg – a book I’ve had on my shelves for decades but rarely picked up. For instance, I’d noticed hints of the waltz occasionally surfacing in the first movement, a theme and variations for the piano soloist and wind ensemble. But I hadn’t noticed how, after the short signature themes spelling out in notes the names of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, the cor anglais begins the movement proper with first two notes, then three, then four as an introduction to the main theme – an indication of additive processes to come perhaps, but also, as Monson points out, a beginning in the manner of “a lilting waltz…very reminiscent of that of the Viennese hero Johann Strauss.”

Similarly the second movement adagio, in which the violin soloist takes over from the piano and plays some of the most romantic melodies in the work (though colourfully decorated by microtones) turns out to be a palindrome. In other words the second part is a mirror of the first, with Berg reversing the thematic material and sometimes using exact retrogrades. The complexity of the musical language might easily make this process inaudible to many listeners. But, says Monson “like all alert dramatists, Berg thought very specifically about how his music might affect, move and involve his audiences”. Accordingly, he places twelve quiet and low C-sharps on the piano – the only time it plays in the adagio – in the exact centre of the movement. It can be very hard to hear in a recording, but in a live performance it is obvious, marking “a mysterious musical moment when everything turns in on itself”. The third movement brings together material from the first two, an intent made clear from the start by the dramatic joint cadenza for the two soloists, who in the performance I saw physically moved closer together for this passage.

Such things were enough to focus my attention to better appreciate the sheer musicality of the interpretation – bearing out what (in the pre-concert talk) Schoenberg’s daughter, Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, had been saying: that early disciples of the Second Viennese school had concentrated too much on the mechanisms behind the music and not on the music itself. More recent interpretations, she said, had altered that, revitilizing the music as music, not theory, and bringing it back into the concert halls for the first time in many years.

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