Berg & Beethoven: Violin Concertos (Harmonia Mundi)
Verdict: "German violinist finds the romantic soul of two concertos a century apart."
If the success of concerto recordings often lies in the pairing of the chosen works, then Isabelle Faust's new disc of Berg and Beethoven was destined to be a champion. The partnership of the young German violinist and veteran conductor Claudio Abbado whetted appetites a year ago, when the news came through that the two had been working in a Bologna studio with Abbado's own Orchestra Mozart.
Finally, this handsome new Harmonia Mundi CD lets us hear what they were doing. Alban Berg's 1935 Violin Concerto is steeped in the dying embers of 19th century romanticism. Occasioned by the death of the teenage daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, it was also the last score the composer completed, just months before his own death.
The blending of Schoenberg's 12-tone technique with a more traditional harmonic palette allows Berg to incorporate a Bach chorale and a Carpathian folk song. Throughout, the wafting of major and minor tonalities tints the score with its unique mix of poetry and nostalgia.
Faust wends her way through Berg's enchanted forest of colours, by turns pensive and forthright, working alongside the orchestra as if it were a large chamber group.
Abbado is just as sensitive to Berg's special world, from the translucent expectation of the opening page, beautifully caught by the Harmonia Mundi engineers, to lashings of a more angry spirit later on.
Towards the end, clarinets playing a Bach chorale have never sounded more like a ghostly harmonium.
After Berg, Beethoven's Violin Concerto exudes a new radiance; for the first three minutes Abbado welcomes us with the immaculate nuancing possible with his own orchestra. Faust enters, clearly determined to maintain the dialogues that were so effective in the previous concerto.
Cadenzas are not the expected Joachim or Kreisler; Faust brings her own with a particularly frisky one for the first movement. The strings take us into the Larghetto with a hushed pianissimo, leading to the intensely powerful duetting of a sometimes volatile Faust with luminous woodwind contributions.
The Finale, which can be over-boisterous, is kept in hand and has all the more humour and grace because of it.