Bach and Handel pretty much owned 1985. Extensive recordings, concerts and media coverage never let us forget their tricentennials. Because these Baroque kingpins were seldom out of eye or earshot, 300 Club birthday celebrants Domenico Scalatti and John Gay, plus Heinrich Schutz (happy 400th, Hank), almost go lost in the shuffle.
One composer who fared surprisingly well, at least on disc, was Alban Berg, born Feb. 9, 1885. He, along with his teacher and mentor Arnold Schonberg and colleague Anton Webern, made up the "Second Viennese School," the first major proponents of 12-tone or serial music. Schonberg formalized the method, Webern extended serialism to embrace tone color and dynamics and Berg personalized it by bending the rules. He was by disposition a Romantic, albeit a progressive one, bridging Mahler and modernism, tonal and atonal in expressive works that never lost sight of the need to convey deep-seated emotions and stir listeners.
His output, though small, contains many instrumental and vocal landmarks. Deutsche Grammophon has consolidated them in a handsome 10-LP boxed set titled "Alban Berg (1885-1935): Published Works" (413 797-1), a timely repackaging of performances from its catalogue offered at a bargain price. Highlights include Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role of the opera "Wozzeck," Op. 7, and the LaSalle Quartet's stunning account of the "String Quartet," Op. 3, and the "Lyric Suite."
What appears to be an oversight -- the inclusion of the standard unfinished two-act version of his opera "Lulu" conducted by Karl Bohm, rather than DG's more recent account with Pierre Boulez -- turns out to be the handiwork of Berg's widow Helene. until she died in 1976, Helene guarded his legacy with a Cerberus-like tenacity; one of the stipulations in the issue of this collection was that the Bohm recording had to be used.
On a less ambitious scale are two single discs, "Alban Berg: Early Songs" (EMI EL, 270195 1, German import) and "Alban Berg: Violin Concerto/3 Orchestra Pieces, Op. 6" (Philips CD 412 523-2; -1 LP; -4 cassette, Digital), which touch on different phases of his career. "Early Songs" is a world premiere recording of 22 unpublished vocal works (selected from a reported 70) he composed between the ages of 17 and 24. Most are less than two minutes long; some are subminute miniatures. More than half spring from an untutored youth suffering from a chronic case of Weltschmerz. Texts are by Goethe, Heine and Eichendorff, among others.
Yet even in the immature songs, one is struck by Berg's expressive impetus and sensitivity, an "overflowing warmth of feeling" Schonberg perceived when examining the young man's many first efforts, whereupon the pedagogue took Berg on as his student in 1904. Once torn between literature and music, he now applied himself to lieder. Pieces such as "Sehnsucht" ("Longing," two versions), gave way to "Traurigketi" ("Sorrow") and "U'ber den Bergen" ("Over the Mountain"), in which the poetry, voice and piano accompaniment coexist equally.
Fischer-Dieskau, while not the best candidate for this material, turns in a respectable, though hardly illustrious, performance. His accompanist, Aribert Reimann, provides incisive backing. The absence of texts and translations is a serious omission, especially from a historical recording. EMI's digital sound is quite good, though the pressing leaves something to be desired.
Philips' coupling of the Violin Concerto and the "Three Orchestral Pieces" is a welcome change from the customary pairing of the concerto with a like work by another composer (usually Schonberg or Stravinsky). In this setting, Sir colin Davis leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a definitive reading of the orchestral pieces. This was Berg's first venture into symphonic writing and he outdid himself, devising an elaborate process of thematic manipulation couched in a language tonally ambiguous and technically arduous. Mahler and Schonberg are the prevailing influences; however, Berg remodels traditional forms of the waltz and march, placing them in a turgid, at times harrowing, light.
Conversely, the Violin Concerto is Berg's most accessible large-scale work, of it communicates with a directness not usually associated with 12-tone music. He designed the tone rows to imply major and minor tonal centers, noticeably B-flat and G-minor. His dedication "to the memory of an angel" ostensibly points to Alma Mahler's daughter Manon Gropius, who died at age 18. In the four movements, the violin supposedly represents the young woman as wondrously tender and carefree before a cataclysmic death knell by the orchestra strikes, and the girl gives over to death. Violinist Gidon Kremer, a master executant, feels every note, phrasing limpidly and pointedly with a timbre wreathed in despair that grows ever heavier. This concerto has been cited as a tone poem with solo violin; Kremer's touch is certainly no less than poetic.
Recent scholarship, investigating Berg's numerological interests and cryptic messages in previous scores, has disclosed that the Gropius program was a smoke screen. He secretly addressed the concerto, his final work, to a servant girl who had borne him an illegitimate daughter, and to his idealized love, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, detested by Helene Berg. The Violin Concerto is thus a deceptive, lovely, practiced web a triple requiem for and about Berg.