AIban Berg’s two best-known orchestral works naturally make headlines, but it’s the pieces that open this disc that set it apart from most of its competitors. Last year conductor Andrew Davis made orchestral versions of Berg’s two early scores – his Piano Sonata Op 1, completed in 1909 while he was studying with Schoenberg, and the unfinished Passacaglia on a theme of 12 notes, which is the only surviving substantial one. fragment (four minutes in length) of what might have been a symphony, conceived just before the outbreak of the First World War. Both pieces had been orchestrated and even recorded before but, as he writes in a liner note, Davis felt that these versions did not really evoke the Viennese sonic world of Mahler, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Schreker that Berg inhabited. at that time.
Certainly, his versions strongly connect this music not only with the composers who were its models, but also with Berg’s later scores, in particular the Three Pieces for Orchestra, which were composed around the same time as the Passacaglia. Presented in this way, the sonata particularly sounds more forward-looking, more Bergian, than it often does on the piano, while the Passacaglia clearly shows its connection to the work in the same form as Berg’s colleague and Schoenberg’s comrade, Anton Webern, had designated as his Op 1.
Emphasizing the connections, Davis follows these pieces with an increasingly intense narrative of the Three Pieces for Orchestra, fittingly fixing its center of gravity in the catastrophic final pages of the terrifying Marsch. Along with this, the performance of the Violin Concerto sounds rather soft and affectionate, with many of the score’s high angles smoothed out. The warm-toned soloist is James Ehnes, who can sometimes be a little too affectionate for some tastes, especially in the final set of variations; overall, however, it is a wonderfully idiomatic and accomplished Berg collection, with exceptional playing by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The other choice of the week
For their latest album Harmonia Mundi, Francois-Xavier Roth and The centuries follow their recording three years ago of an early version of Mahler’s First Symphony with what appears to be the very first recording on period instruments of the Fourth Symphony.
With Sabine Devieilhe as the soprano presenting the childlike vision of paradise in the last movement, Roth’s straightforward interpretation suits the symphony’s clean textures and classic proportions well, though one suspects that later episodes in his series Mahler, if it continues, will be more revealing.