The Beethoven and Berg violin concertos aren’t commonly paired on disc. However, in this case it seems like an inspired piece of programme planning, with an account of the Berg that plumbs its depths of melancholy, setting off a radiant, life-affirming performance of the Beethoven.
Berg could be accused of giving too many instructions to his performers, of not allowing enough room for individual interpretation. He certainly presents them with plenty to think about; in the waltz-like second section of the concerto’s second movement, Isabelle Faust is required, within a few bars, to characterise her part as scherzando, wienerisch and rustico. She succeeds brilliantly; one feels, in this and other places, that such precision actually helps her to convey the intensity of feeling that lies behind this concerto dedicated ‘to the memory of an angel’.
Faust’s stylish way with the waltz episodes brings a suggestion of gaiety that renders more poignant the effect of the dark, complex harmony – a bright memory rendered sad and bitter. In the second movement, after the fierce virtuosity she brings to the declamatory opening section, she chooses the alternative version of the canonic cadenza (suggested by the composer) where she is joined by a solo viola, rather than realising unaided the four-part counterpoint. This passage sounds truly beautiful, like an uneasy oasis of calm in the middle of turbulent conflict, and I’ve become convinced it’s the best way to hear the music.
Abbado and the Orchestra Mozart also take careful notice of the score’s myriad directions, and the effect is similarly to liberate the intensity and beauty of the music. After the harrowing climax at the end of the first part of the second movement, where the Bach chorale (whose melody is related to Berg’s 12-note row) makes its appearance, the effect of having the grieving voice of the solo violin answered by the clarinet choir more quietly, but also slightly faster, and so less weighed down, is perfectly realised – we immediately appreciate why Berg wrote it so.
Few recordings of the Berg have achieved this level of detailed commitment from soloist and orchestra. One that does so is Josef Suk’s, made in 1968 with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Karel Ančerl, and they manage to stay closer to Berg’s metronome markings – some passages in Faust’s recording are on the slow side, though I can’t see that it spoils the performance in any way. And this new account enjoys more mellifluous recorded sound, with far superior definition.
Beethoven may not give as many directions as Berg, but from the very first bars the Orchestra Mozart’s woodwind choir show the same care over detail, the instruments perfectly balanced and with a commitment to bringing out the music’s soulful, expressive character. This sets the tone for the performance, Abbado encouraging his players to maximise the expressive quality of each theme, while keeping a firm hand on the unfolding of the larger design. He and Faust see eye to eye in wishing to preserve a proper Allegro ma non troppo for the first movement and not to be awed by the work’s reputation into presenting it as a grand, Olympian utterance with little vitality (as on the Maxim Vengerov/Rostropovich recording). It’s not just a matter of tempo, either; to all the running passages in the first movement and finale, Isabelle Faust brings a spirited style that at moments becomes positively fiery. A notable example is her cadenza in the finale (track 5, 6'20"). Faust bases her cadenzas and lead-ins on those Beethoven wrote for his adaptation of the work as a piano concerto. This is often an uncomfortable option: Beethoven’s cadenzas (that in the first movement includes an important role for timpani) take the music in surprising directions – more extrovert and playful – and it’s quite difficult to arrange some passages idiomatically for the violin. However, by judicious omission, brilliant playing and sheer conviction, Faust finds a solution that’s both authentically Beethovenian and violinistically convincing.
The Larghetto’s initial theme is most sensitively shaped by the Orchestra Mozart strings and, at Faust’s entry, she is accompanied by especially beautiful solo clarinet and bassoon lines. In this movement, Faust finds a particularly wide range of tone colour, twice receding to the merest whisper and in several places practically omitting vibrato, relying for expression on changes in bow speed and pressure, so creating a powerful sense of concentration in the melodic line. It’s entirely characteristic of this performance that the sudden orchestral outburst at the end of the Larghetto, heralding the cadenza that leads to the finale, which so often seems inappropriately formal, here comes as a shocking surprise, a rude awakening from an exquisite dream.
In recent years, there have been several fine recordings of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Faust’s performance has a grandeur that Christian Tetzlaff’s sweeter, more intimate account doesn’t attempt to match. Janine Jansen has the grandeur but doesn’t quite rival Faust’s expressive range or emotional intensity. Outstanding performances of both concertos, then; I’ll want to return to them often. (Duncan Druce / Gramophone)