Classical CD reviews
Berg: Wozzeck, complete opera in three acts. Several soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera, Stockholm, conducted by Leif Segerstram–Naxos 8.660076/77 (92 minutes).
Born in Vienna in 1885, Alban Berg, together with Anton Webern and their teacher Arnold Schoenberg, make up the trio of composers generally known as the New Viennese School, a group that came to the fore in the early part of the 20th century.
As a child Berg had little formal musical education, but owed the training he had to his teacher, whose pupil he became in 1904. His father had died in 1900, and the budding composer persuaded his mother to allow him to give up his government career in order to manage the considerable family estate with greater dedication.
Berg and his family settled into the comfortable surroundings of Schoenbrunn Palace, and the composer soon found Vienna’s cultural milieu stimulating. His studies ended in 1911 when he went back to Berlin, and the following year he wrote his Altenberger Lieder, Op. 4, a work that did not go down well with the critics.
Military service during the war put an end to composition, but in 1914 Berg attended a performance of Georg Büchner’s 1837 play Wozzeck, and he was so impressed that he decided to write an opera based on it. He made some early sketches but work on the piece only started in earnest in 1917.
By 1922 the opera was complete and the project aroused great interest which led to the performance of three fragments (in concert version) in 1924. The premiere took place in 1925 at the Berlin State Opera under Erich Kleiber and the opera was well received. Today Wozzeck is perhaps the only atonal opera to keep a place in the repertoire.
Berg’s output is relatively small and his reputation rests mainly on this opera and the unfinished Lulu, and the fascinating Violin Concerto written near the end of his life. Berg died in December 1935 having contracted blood poisoning from an infected insect bite.
Wozzeck is a remarkable study of victimisation, despair and madness, where the protagonist is treated with contemptuous cruelty by the captain and the unscrupulous doctor whose experiments provide money for Marie, whom Wozzeck loves but cannot marry because of poverty. In the end he stabs her to death, killing also his child in her womb, when he finds out she has betrayed him with the drum-major. Mad with remorse and grief, he drowns himself in the lake.
This live recording from the Kungliga Theatre in Stockholm captures the almost beastly passions and underlying agonies with compelling intensity and Segerstam keeps the action moving at a fast pace.
Honegger: Le Roi David (oratorio). Several soloists, Choeur Regional Vittoria d’Ile de France and the Orchestre de la Cité conducted by Michel Piquemal – Naxos 8.553649 (66 minutes).
Born in 1892 in Le Havre, Arthur Honegger was of Swiss parentage, but late in his career came to be regarded as a French composer. Honegger’s training began in his hometown under local teachers and continued in Zurich. At the Paris Conservatoire he was taught by no less than Widor and d’Indy, but more importantly by Andre Gedalge, who also taught Schmitt, Koechlin, Enesco, Ravel and Milhaud.
Strangely, Honegger was always torn by a double identity in both his spiritual and artistic life. A Protestant in a Catholic part of his native country, as a composer he was always oscillating between symphony and opera. This same duality informed all his work: in accordance with the commission and period, and augmented by his fertile imagination, he wrote prodigiously for the theatre: 18 ballets, varied stage pieces, two operas, four operettas and some 30 film scores.
Honegger’s predilection for a purer style of music is reflected in his four concertos, five symphonies, a large number of orchestral works and several chamber pieces, not to mention a quantity of songs and the revival of the oratorio in the 20th century.
While on a visit to New York in 1947 Honegger was diagnosed with a heart ailment, from which he eventually died in Paris in 1955.
Composed in 1921, Le Roi David was his first major success. Originally conceived as a work for the stage, the composer later described it as a symphonic psalm in three parts or an oratorio with a narrator linking the arias and choruses.
The colourful score relates the biblical story of the triumph of David over Goliath and Saul, and although lasting only just over an hour, the piece is permeated by several dramatic moments that are closely wrought together with a strong search for unity and balance.
This is music that demands high levels of concentration and commitment and this performance has it all, not to mention the superb singing from both soloists and choir which has an endearing clarity that makes the work highly accessible, even to first-time listeners.
Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No. 2; Variations on a Theme by Chopin, Op. 22; Morceaux defantaisie, Op. 3. Konstantin Scherbakov, piano – Naxos 8.554669 (70 minutes).
Born in 1873, Sergei Rachmaninov was a Russian composer who chose exile rather than remain in a country torn by revolution and repression. His family lived beyond its means, and had to sell most of its property to make ends meet. Only the estate at Oleg, near Novgorod, was left, and it was here that the young Sergei was brought up.
A scholarship allowed the nine-year-old to enter St Petersburg Conservatory, where he soon developed a penchant for laziness. This, coupled with the lack of attention needed at home, caused him to fail all his exams, and his scholarship was in jeopardy. After his parents separated, responsibility for the boy’s welfare fell upon his mother. Luckily, one of her relations was the well known pianist Alexander Siloti, on whose advice Sergei found himself in Zverev’s piano class, a teacher with a fearsome reputation for rigour and the strictest discipline.
This experience was to prove vital for Rachmaninov’s career, as the phenomenal piano ability acquired under Zverev’s tuition brought him fame and fortune, and from 1917, when he left Russia, till his death in Beverly Hills, California, in 1943, it was his main source of income. In the last 20 years of his life the composer-pianist undertook several demanding concert tours, mesmerising audiences in Europe and America.
Rachmaninov wrote the three works on this recording between 1892 and 1913, when he was still living in Russia. He based his Chopin Variations (1903/04) on a theme from the Polish composer’s Prelude in C Minor No. 20 Op. 28, writing a set of 22 variations that suited his particular playing style, and the piece alternates between rhythmic complexity and relatively simple textures.
The Piano Sonata No. 2 of 1913 makes considerable technical demands on the performer, and the extended passages of virtuoso writing testify to Rachmaninov’s innate knowledge of the instrument. The work was revised in 1931, where heavily laden passages were deleted to make textures more transparent.
The five Morceaux were written when Rachmaninov was 19 and had just completed his studies in composition at Moscow Conservatory. The mood in each piece is generally a reflection of its title, but the work as a whole seems to epitomise the composer’s melancholic and dramatic style.
Sherbakov’s playing has an easy flow about it, something that makes the music yield all its hidden colours, and yet his interpretations are constantly stylish in character and never miss a trick.
These CDs were made available for review by D’Amato Record Shop of 98-99, St John Street, Valletta.