I've held off on reviewing this Deutsche Grammophon disc for a long time, since I didn't think I could add anything to the praise already lavished on it by the press and my fellow reviewers. Yet, it is the fate of reviewers to ultimately throw in their two cents in spite of all that has come before, so here follow my thoughts on these performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by James Levine, with Anne-Sophie Mutter on solo violin.
Alban Berg's "Violin Concerto" (1935), with the dedication "to the memory of an angel", seems to have finally entered the standard repertoire. Written after the death of the young Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler-Werfel and Walter Gropius, it is a work of constant elegy sometimes tempered with praise of a beautiful young soul, but at other times giving in to the darkest feelings of mourning and catastrophe. Like in all his work, Berg uses the twelve-tone system inherited from his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, but with strong echoes of traditional harmony. Romanticism is abundant in this work too often considered undesirably "modernist"; it opens with the lushest sounds of clarinet and harp, moves towards the softest touches of strings, and ultimately roars thundering crescendos pregnant with meaning. While the violin is sometimes a sort of protagonist, representing the bloom of youth held down by Fate, often the work is intensely directing us to higher themes outside of the ensemble itself.
Since Berg left the door open to traditional harmony, he brings in two objets trouvees that link the work to a long tradition before it. The most readily noticeable is Bach's chorale "Es ist genug", variations on which provide the basis of the second movement. Another is a Carinthian folk song Berg knew in his youth, when he had an illegitimate child with a family maid, giving the concerto a "secret programme". This being 2007, when film music has gone to much greater extremes of "dissonance" than Berg ever approached, the harmonies of the concerto will seem pleasing and elegant to all but the most conservative of classical listeners.
There are, of course, many other performances of Berg's concerto out there. But several things set this apart. For one, the digital sound quality is superb, bringing a clarity to a piece too often heard in primitive recordings. And it was recorded after examination of the original sketches in the 1980s revealed that a key part of the work was muddled in the published score. Finally, there is Mutter's technique itself. While she has now grown rather stale and trite, at this time the violinist was at the height of her powers, and this performance is simple flawless.
The second piece on the disc is Wolfgang Rihm's "Time Chant" (1991-92). Here the violin is meant to exhibit nearly vocal characteristics, and when the small orchestra contributes, it is only in the role of filling out a line that is, as Rihm, claims, "in essence monophonic". The writing for the violin hovers in the heights of its range, playing crystalline sounds in the longest durations. This is actually something unusual for Rihm, as his music is often concerned with movement and energy--see JAGDEN UND FORMEN in DG's "20/21" series for an excellent work in this vein. Here Rihm amost approaches Alexander Knaifel in the light purity of the writing. I enjoy it immensely, especially played on a top-of-the-line stereo where its fragile beauty shines through, but I'd certainly recommend that people look elsewhere for an introduction to Rihm.
This disc is one of the greatest achievements on the CD. It commands so much respect and demand that 15 years after its release, it still has not been lowered to mid-price. It deserves a place in your collection, and the music will undoubtedly find itself a place in your heart as well.