I don't think this 2003 recording from Daniel Hope was much noticed on our side of the Atlantic. The catalog is full of notable versions of the Berg Violin Concerto, and the Britten is almost never played here. But in all respects this is an ear-opening experience. Hope and the cellist-turned-conductor Paul Watkins are protoges of the great Yehudi Menuhin, and they have picked up his enormous integrity and spiritual directness.
However they inherited their style, here is a perfect amalgam of conductor and soloist. They have set out to clarify the complexities of the Berg by merging violin and orchestra into a single vloice (the miking reflects this by not forcing Hope into the spotlight), and for the first time I found it possible to follow Berg's imagination from beginning to end. Not that the erading feels studied or academic. Hope, born in 1974, belongs to a generation of musicians for whom the work's thorny idiom comes as naturally as Bach. Compared to his free, flexible, lucid, reading, those from Stern, Perlman, and Mutter seem stilted and even confused.
Hope brings similar revelations to the Britten, which he plays -- as he does the Berg -- much more inwardly than expected. Nothing is done for show, and yet every measure is totally involving. Britten wrote in harmonies that are modernist but more conventional than Berg's -- his violin concerto followed Berg's by three years. On hearing the world premiere in Barcelona in 1936, the young Britten described the Berg as "shattering" and "sublime." Without imitating it, Britten wrote a work that can be just as mysterious and almost as devastating. The two are linked by their unnerving, grief-tinged, at times harrowing reaction to the Nazi era.
Berg was specifically motivated by the tragic death of an 18-year-old girl, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius: the concerto's two parts depict her in life and then in death, leading to an angelic transfiguration. Britten more generally captures the haunted atmosphere of a darkened Europe in the late Thirties. Both composers place disjointed styles cheek to jowl. In the Berg we get a Viennese waltz, Austrian landler, and variations on a Bach funeral chorale, "Es ist genug" (echoing Jesus's "It is finished" on the cross). Britten's juxtapositions are more puzzling -- there are quasi-tango rhythms in the first movement, Mahlerian drum taps, and a wide array of desperate outcries in the Passacaglia-form finale.
In short, this isn't an easy listen, and I don't want to fall into the trap of recommending it to sound superior, as if one deserves a prize for getting through thick underbrush. The listening here is truly enjoyable and deeply emotional. Hope, like Menuuhin, has the rare, selfless ability to get to the very heart of music, as if he sees past the notes to the composer's most heartfelt motivations. He made me feel that both these works really matter -- what more can one ask?
P.S. 2013 - In an interview about this concerto, Gil shaham connects it to the Spanish Civil War, with the opening rhythm an approaching march, the plaintive violin in the finale a woman screaming, and overall the structure one of disintegration.