The Berg Concerto is a world premiere recording. Because Alban Berg died before the first performance of his Violin Concerto, he was not able to correct the score after it had been prepared by the copyist. The work has been performed and recorded many times since its premiere in 1935 but when the Berg scholar Professor Douglas Jarman compared the commonly-accepted score with the original manuscript, he found over 50 errors. Consequently he was commissioned by the Alban Berg Foundation to prepare a new edition from the original manuscript which was then premiered by Daniel Hope in Vienna in 1996. The Concerto was composed in memory of Manon Gropius - daughter of Alma Mahler Gropius and Walter Gropius - who died suddenly at the age of 18. The second work on this CD, Benjamin Britten’s violin concerto, was composed as a memorial to victims of the Spanish Civil War. Daniel Hope, protégé of Yehudi Menuhin and former student of Zakhar Bron, has built a multifaceted career as a soloist and chamber musician with various partners and also as the youngest ever member of the legendary Beaux Arts Trio. He has also initiated and taken part in numerous conceptual projects from period performances to spoken word, Indian music and jazz. He has worked with such diverse artists as the period instrument ensemble Concerto Köln, actor Klaus Maria Brandauer, jazz pianist Uri Caine and vocalist Bobby McFerrin.
Berg never heard his Violin Concerto. He died three months before the first performance in Barcelona in 1936...but a 22 year old Benjamin Britten was there, and his own Violin Concerto written three years later appears to owe a debt, not just to the Berg Concerto (which the young Englishman found sublime and shattering) but also to the location of the premiere. This was Republican Spain just moments from civil war, and Britten the pacifist finished his concerto in America in 1939, after leaving war-torn Europe behind him. These concertos feel like natural partners on disc, and it's astonishing that this seems to be the first time they've appeared together.
Berg first...and because the composer wasn't around to oversee that first performance, a number of uncorrected errors made it into the published manuscript. This is the first recording of Douglas Jarman's corrected edition, and most of the changes will pass unnoticed...but there's one passage at the start of Part 2 where the violin suddenly soars a whole octave higher than we're used to, making an even greater impact when the soloist plummets to earth. Of course this concerto has had some legendary performances over the years by some of the great violinists of the 20th century, and while this new one isn't likely to supplant them, there's more than just the fidelity of the manuscript to consider here. Hope's performance is finely judged, but it's the detail and clarity of the orchestral reading that's most telling, conducted by cellist Paul Watkins, Hope's sometime partner in chamber music.
It's the coupling that really counts though. The Britten Concerto still qualifies as a neglected masterpiece, despite the attentions of Maxim Vengerov and Rostropovich in a powerful recent recording. Hope and Watkins give up nothing at all to their Russian rivals; in fact this boldly expansive performance exposes the dark, painfully beautiful heart of Britten's Concerto in as searing a reading as any I've heard. There's a vulnerable edge to Hope's sound that's perfect for the final pages of the concerto, leaving the listener in a shattered landscape, emotionally drained.
The recording quality is excellent, the balance is natural, and the presentation is fine: fascinating notes. I'd be very surprised if the pairing of Berg and Britten Violin Concertos isn't tried again - it's mutually beneficial. But any newcomer will need something special not to be found wanting against readings as rewarding as these.
Like This? Try These:
Britten: Suites for Solo Cello (Paul Watkins)
Britten: Violin Concerto; Walton: Viola Concerto (Maxim Vengerov)
Webern: String Quartets (Artis Quartett) --Andrew McGregor
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