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Blurring the Line Between Romanticism and Modernism: a review of the first weekend of “Berg and His World” at Bard College, August 13—15: Berg and Vienna

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Alban Berg

Bard Music Festival, “Berg and His World”
Weekend One, August 13—15: Berg and Vienna

Friday, August 13

Program One

Alban Berg: The Path of Expressive Intensity

Sosnoff Theater 7:30 pm
Pre-concert talk: Leon Botstein 8:00 pm
Performance: Daedalus Quartet; Jeremy Denk, piano; Danny Driver, piano; Alexander Fiterstein, clarinet; Christine Goerke, soprano; Pei-Yao Wang, piano; Bard Festival Chamber Players

In memory of George Perle

Alban Berg (1885–1935)
Seven Early Songs (1905–08)
Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1907–08)
Four Pieces, for clarinet and piano (1913)
Lyric Suite (1925–26)
Johann Strauss II (1825–99) Wein, Weib, und Gesang, Op. 333 (1869, arr. Berg, 1921)

Saturday, August 14


Berg: His Life and Career

Olin Hall 10:00 am—12 noon Christopher H. Gibbs, moderator; Christopher Hailey; Douglas Jarman; and Dan Morgenstern

Program Two

The Vienna of Berg’s Youth

Olin Hall 1:00 pm: Pre-concert talk: Mark DeVoto 1:30 pm
Performance: Alessio Bax, piano; Daedalus Quartet; Pei-Yao Wang, piano; and Nicholas Phan, tenor

Alban Berg (1885–1935), Selections from early piano works and songs
Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942), Fantasies on Poems by Richard Dehmel, Op. 9 (1898)
Five Songs on poems by Dehmel (1907)
Karl Weigl (1881–1949), String Quartet No. 3 in A major (1909)
Anton Webern (1883–1945), Piano Quintet (1907)
Joseph Marx (1882–1964), Valse de Chopin (1909)

Program Three

Mahler and Beyond

Sosnoff Theater 7:00 pm: Pre-concert talk: Christopher H. Gibbs 8:00 pm
Performance: Christiane Libor, soprano; Akiko Suwanai, violin; American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, music director

Alban Berg (1885–1935)
Fünf Orchesterlieder nach Ansichtskartentexten von Peter Altenberg, Op. 4 (1912)
Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 (1914–15)
Violin Concerto (1935)
Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), Adagio, from Symphony No. 10 (1910)
Hans Pfitzner (1869–1949), “Abend” and “Nacht,” from Von deutscher Seele, Op. 28 (1921)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957) Prelude and Carnival Music, from Violanta, Op. 8 (1914)

Sunday, August 15

Program Four
Eros and Thanatos
Olin Hall 10:00 am

Performance Commentary by Byron Adams; with Marnie Breckenridge, soprano; Fredrika Brillembourg, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Thomas Meglioranza, baritone; Lucille Chung and Pei-Yao Wang, piano; Daedalus Quartet

Works by Alban Berg (1885–1935), Johann Strauss II (1825–99), Richard Strauss (1864– 1949), Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), Franz Schreker (1878–1934), Alma Mahler (1879–1964), Friedrich Hollaender (1896–1976), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957)

Program Five
Teachers and Apostles

Olin Hall 1:00 pm
Pre-concert talk: Sherry D. Lee 1:30 pm
Performance: Alessio Bax, piano; Marnie Breckenridge, soprano; Lucille Chung, piano; Cygnus Ensemble; Daedalus Quartet; Danny Driver, piano; Soovin Kim, violin

Alban Berg (1885–1935), String Quartet, Op. 3 (1910)
Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), Six Piano Pieces, Op. 19 (1911)
Anton Webern (1883–1945), Four Pieces, for violin and piano, Op. 7 (1910)
Egon Wellesz (1885–1974), Three Piano Pieces, Op. 9 (1911)
Sandór Jemnitz (1890–1963), Trio, for guitar, violin, and viola, Op. 33 (1932)
Viktor Ullmann (1898–1944), Variations and Double-Fugue on a Piano Work by A. Schönberg, Op. 3a (1929)
Hans Erich Apostel (1901–72), Variations from Lulu (1935)
Theodor W. Adorno (1903–69), Six Bagatelles, Op. 6 (1923–42)

Program Six
The Orchestra Reimagined

Sosnoff Theater 5:00 pm
Pre-concert talk: Antony Beaumont 5:30 pm
Performance: Jeremy Denk, piano; Soovin Kim, violin; members of the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, music director

Alban Berg (1885–1935), Kammerkonzert (1923–25)
Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924), Berceuse élégiaque, Op. 42 (1909; arr. Stein, 1920)
Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951), Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 (1905–06)
Paul Hindemith (1895–1963), Kammermusik No. 1, Op. 24/1 (1921)

The theme of Bard’s retrospective “Berg and His World” was clearly stated and restated: Berg needs to be liberated from the so-called “Second Viennese School” and seen in a wider context of Vienna and beyond. Too long has he been seen primarily as a student of Schoenberg along with Webern; this perspective masks his individuality as well as his stature, which, if anything, is as great or greater than that of his beloved “master.” The gauntlet was laid down right away by Leon Botstein, who gave the first pre-concert talk: Berg gives us the best of both worlds, the expressive, content-oriented approach to composition as communication, and the formally strict, self-contained structural world of the music for its own sake. Implication no. 1: Schoenberg and Webern over-emphasize the latter at the expense of the former. Implication no. 2: other composers and artists than Schoenberg had powerful influences on Berg’s urge to compose expressively (read “romantically”). Implication no. 3: Berg was as much a romantic as a modernist. Result: Berg became by far the most popular (hence, successful) composer of the three.

The musical offerings put forth to illustrate this thesis (or are there more than one?) were so lavish, and for the most part so convincingly performed, that it seems churlish to beg to differ, or to at least keep an open mind about the more traditional view of Berg as someone whose development utterly hinged on his relationship with Schoenberg for a significant period of time, and whose continuing relationship remained an important (not to say crucial) force field within which he worked.  (This position will be referred to henceforth in this writing as the contrarian one.) And in fairness, there were some wonderful Schoenberg performances to remind us of that composer’s virtues: songs from the Georgelieder, the little piano pieces op. 19, and the powerful Chamber Symphony no. 1. No weak links here; but also, no twelve-tone works. Lecturers and panelists repeatedly underscored the fact that even though Berg used twelve-tone-rows, his approach was very different from Schoenberg’s. And so were the audible results.

Into the yeasty brew of music and historical-cultural point-making were tossed copious amounts of music by the lesser Viennese, some not much lesser and some very much so. Victor Ullman’s “Variations on a Theme of Schoenberg” would seem to support the contrarian perspective since this is one of the strongest works of that composer, who was also a Schoenberg student, a fascinating study in how one of the briefest pieces (23” in length) can inspire an almost endless number of musical commentaries and expansions. In his enthusiastic demonstration of how much was packed into Schoenberg’s mighty miniature, Ullmann was constructing an hommage, and also demonstrating how Schoenberg’s infamous “atonal” music could exist happily in a more tonal, not to say expansive, context. Another unknown winner was Karl Weigl’s String Quartet no. 3. Here was a geniunely unique voice, and to be sure a much more conservative one. Yet this work was not to be confused with the late-tonal chromatic style found in many of the other “tonalists,” including early Berg (early songs and piano pieces) and Webern (the 1907 Piano Quintet). Weigl’s love of well-profiled melodic phrases and driving, folk-based rhythms made one wish to hear the work again, as well as the composer’s other pieces (hoping that this is not the exception in an otherwise undistinguished oeuvre). The final movement, powerfully rendered by the splendid ensemble-in-residence of the festival, the Daedelus Quartet, had enough bite to foreshadow Shostakovich. If one were looking for stylistic links to any of the Viennese holy trinity, they were not in evidence, but Weigl, like others included in the program, was part of that same Viennese milieu, and contributed to our understanding of how broadly inclusive that was. We were constantly reminded that the “father” of all this was not Schoenberg, but Mahler, who was also described at various points as a “saint” and even “martyr.” Bringing him into the picture (the Adagio of his Tenth Symphony was heard Saturday night) makes the immanence of Shostakovich seem more plausible.

The inclusion of another unknown work of no distinction at all inadvertently strengthened the contrarian position: the Valse de Chopin of Joseph Marx. Undoubtedly it was irresistable to the programmers, since the same Giraud text as translated by Hartleben is set as no. 5 of Schoenberg’s towering masterpiece, Pierrot Lunaire. Poor Marx! It was impossible to hear this garden-variety bit of mild Viennese decadence without recalling the wildly imaginative, bitingly ironic, artistically daring and over-the-top theatricality of Schoenberg’s unheard version. It was a dramatic example of the way experiences like this festival can show the true stature of great works, intentionally or otherwise.

Busoni, Zemlinsky, Korngold, and Pfitzner are composers who have shown up before at these Retrospectives; they were parts of many composers’ worlds. Busoni is a composer who sounds like himself primarily because he really doesn’t ever sound like anyone else. But I’m still struggling to get a grip on what his music is really about; I find it elusive. It was good to hear the Berceuse élégaique to be reminded of this; little of the piece made any impression and I will not suffer if I don’t hear it again. Zemlinsky and Korngold, on the other hand, are composers who just ooze talent, ideas, and musical energy; Zemlinsky (Schoenberg’s brother-in-law and one-time teacher) has never disappointed yet. In addition to the two wonderful short operas we heard a few years ago (The Florentine Tragedy and The Dwarf) we have heard a great String Quartet at the Schoenberg Festival, and this year, a Schumannesque but very engaging set of early piano pieces after poems by Richard Dehmel, a somewhat later, gripping song-cycle with texts by the same poet, and several additional songs purporting to show his contribution to the Viennese obsession with Eros. Zemlinsky apparently invested every note he wrote with unambiguous passion (he certainly had that urge to communicate) as well as a beautifully polished formal and harmonic technique. If Bard ever decided to do a Zemlinsky Festival, you couldn’t keep me away.

Korngold is perhaps more familiar than one expects, if like me you enjoy watching Hollywood movies from the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. His film scores are worth careful scrutiny; they are incredibly well-crafted to fulfill their purpose and elevate the films almost to the level of operatic intensity without violating the necessary Hollywood illusion of inaudibility. (See Claudia Gorbman’s essential book on the subject “Unheard Melodies.”) Like Weigl, his style remained firmly planted in the pre-war (WW I, that is) world of Strauss and Mahler, and the progressive or challenging elements of composers like Zemlinsky are absent; when Korngold returned to Vienna after the second war with the hopes of reestablishing his career as a composer of concert music, he was ignored as hopelessly passé. That was in the ‘50’s when the Darmstadt School was cranking up pronouncements that cast anathema upon any music that had the slightest taint of tradition, much less a tonal center, and Boulez was even writing off Schoenberg as too traditional in favor of Webern, the genuine revolutionary. While Korngold’s music has finally achieved a life for itself in the concert hall and opera hoouse, the prodigious talents of this composer (literally: the opera Violanta was composed when he was 17) were not shown to good advantage last weekend. The Violanta excerpts felt excessive, like two charlotte russes consumed in succession, while “Mariettas Lied” came off as generic without its operatic context.  Pfitzner came off even less well; I admit a personal distaste: he was an artistic and political conservative with a nasty streak who ended up supporting Hitler; but I try to listen with an open mind, and both the Second Quartet that we heard at Bard years ago and the instrumental sections of his cantata Von deutscher Seele (words not given; probably a good idea) outlasted their welcome by quite a bit. The basic ideas were attractive, and there are many musicians like Bruno Walter who had a healthy respect for his talents, but what we heard displayed a lack of rigorous self-criticism. The man needed an editor.

The “Teachers and Apostles” program on Sunday afternoon, which included the aforementioned Ullmann discovery, beautifully rendered by Danny Driver, introduced us to quite a crowd of followers, including Wellesz, Jemnitz, and Apostel (shades of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego!), not to speak of the great philosopher Theodore W. Adorno. Pre-concert speaker Sherry Lee took pains to make us understand that the circle around Berg was not confined by time or space. On the basis of this music, it was apparently wide but fairly shallow. Wellesz, an early Schoenberg student who went on to write nine conservative symphonies (with which I am not familiar) showed no perceptible Viennese influence; Debussy, Ravel, and possibly Honegger seemed to be present (not likely in the latter case, owing to chronology). They were musical, pleasant, and forgettable, but made the point that Schoenberg did not try to get his students to emulate the master; like all good composition teachers, he understood that composers need to find their own voices, and need to acquire enough technique to help them do so. Jemnitz, another Schoenberg student, did imitate his master in the Trio for violin, viola, and guitar. Ms Lee tripped up when she failed to acknowledge that Schoenberg had in fact composed a work including guitar, and was corrected by a helpful member of the audience (not me!). She should have known better: it is a marvellous and important work, a turning point in his career, and contains one his first uses of a tone-row. This is the Serenade op. 24, and it is scored for the very striking ensemble of mandolin, guitar, two clarinets, and three strings. Jemnitz’s first movement was clearly an hommage to Schoenberg’s first movement, also a march; and once again, the teacher outshines the student by many magnitudes of brightness. In this demonstration of Schoenberg’s influence, the contrarian point of view received another pillar of support. The audience enthusiastically acknowledged the fine performance, especially the virtuosic contribution of guitarist William Anderson.

In view of his status as both student of Berg and one of the most influential modern writers on music and philosophy, particular interest attached to Adorno’s epigrammatic songs, which were technically polished, pleasing miniatures with a Webern-esque tautness as well as a light touch. Adorno wrote a book of essays about his beloved teacher, essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the subject. Adorno’s works for string quartet are also worth an occasional performance. Measured against the other composers on the program, he comes off very well; and yet he was self-critical enough to realize that his greatest talents lay elsewhere. The remaining works on this program were by the three who, at least before last weekend, were commonly referred to as the Second Viennese School. On this program, Schoenberg’s op 19 piano pieces, Webern’s op 7 violin pieces, and Berg’s String Quartet simply put all else in the shade. Danny Driver made no effort to enlarge or inflate Schoenberg’s evanescent, corruscating gems. He kept a modest dynamic range and utilized a glowing spectrum of quiet colors and fleet tempi to make his point, which is that these apparently modest little works cut to the quick; no wonder Ullmann was so inspired. Similarly, violinist Soovin Kim and pianist Alessio Bax found every scintilla of expressiveness in the incredibly concentrated phrases of the Webern pieces; this composer found a point on the musical compass unknown to his predecessors, and one really must use a special adjective to describe it: Webernesque. I think we are long past the moment when such music needs to be described as schematic, excessively formal, favoring structure over communication; away with all that! This is the purest blood of the body of music you can find anywhere, and the performers understood every drop.

It was good to hear the estimable Daedelus ensemble in Berg’s earlier quartet, which is programmed less often than the more well-known and now notorious Lyric Suite, heard in a fabulous performance on Friday night. This work, composed seventeen years earlier, indeed shows Berg sitting right on that tonal-atonal fence alongside his master whose Second String Quartet appeared in the same year. A composer sitting next to me noted that it was clearly the work of one steeped in song, and it was instructive to hear it in the same weekend as the youthful songs and piano pieces as well as the Piano Sonata op 1 of which Jeremy Denk gave a definitive performance on Friday night. The juxtaposition suggested how quickly and dramatically Berg found his voice under Schoenberg’s tutelage. Denk showed that this sometimes rhapsodic-sounding sonata has a clear structural backbone without ever sounding in the least bit rigid; in fact, the flexible shape of each phrase projected in macrocosm across the entire structure, whose component parts and tonal movements emerged as if by Mozart. Helping out was the firm delineation of the contrapuntal structure unclouded by overpedalling, and a strong and securely-defined touch that kept the complex textures flowing and clear. Similar virtues were evident in the Daedelus’s renditions of both Berg quartets; in fact, the standards of performance overall have been remarkably high.

The greatest challenge, in terms of performance quality, comes in the orchestral repertory, where rehearsal time must be in limited supply given the vaste quantities of complex music the orchestra is obliged to learn. Here, too, the performers made heroic efforts. On Saturday night, they took on great challenges in the form of Berg’s orchestral scores, both early (Altenberg Lieder, Three Pieces op. 6) and late (Violin Concerto). Berg’s orchestral pieces, which combine the symphonic grandiosity of Mahler with the concentration and complexity of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces op. 16, adding layers of allusiveness and lyrical pessimism all Berg’s own, are perhaps over-written; it is hugely difficult to sort out and to display a through-line to the forms, especially the final March. The energetic performance was described in the Times (by Steve Smith) as “shakey” which was also my impression; more important, the cohesive forces in the first and last movements were not on clear display, owing to insufficiently differentiated balances. At the other end of the spectrum, the Violin Concerto (1935) received a world-class performance in which each individual player seemed to make a heart-felt contribution. The scoring, of course, is much lighter and the narrative easier to follow; but soloist Akiko Suwanai, conductor Botstein, and the players in the orchestra collaborated with sensitivity to ensemble, gesture, and expressivity that perhaps offered the strongest support for the view being put forth of Berg as a romantic urgently impelled to communicate. The rarely-heard Altenberg Lieder op. 4 were given an impassioned reading by soprano Christiane Libor, whose rich warm sound balanced and blended well with the complex and colorful scoring.

The following night we were to hear a superb performance of a much more complex and problematic work, the Chamber Concerto for violin, piano, and winds of 1925. Although offered in reverse chronological order, one could reassemble the process by which Berg came to the point of producing a more or less conventional concerto without sacrificing one bit of his individuality. The Chamber Concerto has always been a puzzling or hermetic work, full of cryptic signs and structural complexities in which an innocent listener can easily get lost. Fortunately, the brilliant soloists and wind players were able to go beyond the daunting task of playing the notes properly to delineate the expressive curve of this unique composition. Pianist Jeremy Denk once again clarified things for the listener both structurally and emotionally, abetted by his violinist colleague Soovin Kim, whose impassioned playing never met a note it felt neutral about. Botstein held the proceedings together firmly, and the winds maintained proper balance and beautiful sonority, so that one could enjoy the sounds and gestures while finding one’s way through the formal maze.

On the same program were other “classics” for chamber orchestra, pre-war before intermission and from the 1920’s after it. This including Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony no. 1 in a bright, clear, and energetic performance that might have been a bit too driven in the slower sections, but that held interest throughout, along with Hindemith’s Kammermusik no. 1 that could have been the palate-cleanser between two hyper-chromatic contrapuntal Viennese dishes. Hindemith’s Dada-tilted score was as much fun as it was supposed to be, meaning that the humor and energy did not seem dated, and the performance allowed us to hear how totally different his concept of the chamber orchestra was from those of his Viennese colleagues. Aside from a somewhat blurred piano solo, the performers kept the rhythmic drive moving steadily forward with emphasis on the mass of sound rather than individual lines. The presence of xylophone at the beginning and siren at the end served as demarcation moments that did not feel at all incongruous with the goings-on in between. Antony Beaumont, in his pre-concert lecture, made the valuable point that works such as this were crafted to sound good in the new transmission media of radio and phonograph, which reproduced sharply articulated sounds more clearly than traditional string-based orchestral sonorities. Inclusion of this work made for excellent programming, musically speaking, but raised the question of its reletion to Berg: here was a younger colleague whose rise to prominence occurred after World War I and who represented an aesthetic stance, “Neue Sachlichkeit” or musical objectivity, that had no influence whatsoever on Berg or his artistic allies. As was pointed out in the panel discussion, Berg only rose to prominence later in his career, after the performance of Wozzeck (composed in 1922, premiered in 1925 when Berg was already 40), when he was too well-formed to be influenced significantly by younger musicians and newer trends. His subsequent works were therefore “out of time” in the sense that they reflected little of the aethetic developments of the moment, with the exception of the inclusion of a film in Lulu, Berg being an avid movie fan.

It is not possible to mention all the excellent performers and speakers who joined forces to impell the ears and hearts of those attending to a higher level of musical and cultural consciousness; and this report concerns only the first of two weekends! Prudence dictates drawing a line here, however, with the intention of continuing with part 2 next week.

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