It was hard to resist the opportunity to listen to one of Bettina Mussumeli’s students play the entirety of Alban Berg’s violin concerto in a Violin Studio Recital last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). Subtitled “To the Memory of an Angel,” the concerto was composed following the death by polio of the eighteen-year-old Manon Gropius, the child of Walter Gropius and his wife, the former Alma Mahler. It provides a meeting ground between Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone approach to composing atonal music and much of the lush rhetoric of turn-of-the-century Viennese tonality; yet the music itself rises high above any theoretical framework for explaining what it is and how it works.
As Berg composed it, the concerto is as impressive in its use of rich orchestral sonorities (for which Berg had a particular talent that, unfortunately, he did not exercise enough) as it is for the demands it places on the soloist. The story is that Berg asked Louis Krasner, who commissioned the concerto, to experiment with different ways in which he could play his instrument, while Berg sat listening in another room out of Krasner’s sight. This provided the composer with a foundation for the demands he would make of Krasner in the concerto itself, and his orchestral writing would then establish the framework for that solo work. The entire piece would be framed in four movements providing, respectively, an introductory evocation of the act of remembering, specific memories of Manon’s childhood, the shock of her illness and death, and the emergence of the “angel” through the music of a chorale setting by Johann Sebastian Bach.
The full force of the dramatic impact is lost without an orchestra. However, in last night’s piano account of the orchestral reduction brought a clarity to the motivic building blocks of the concerto that is often obscured by the thickly-textured instrumental sonorities. Confronted with a more explicit account of those building blocks, the listener could then better grasp how they emerge and are then embellished in the violin part as well. Thus, while the “tone of discourse” may have been dampened by reducing the orchestra to a piano part, the “plot logic” of the four movements emerged as more explicit.
While this violin-piano version can never substitute for a performance of the concerto as Berg wrote it, last night demonstrated how it could provide the attentive listener with new ways of thinking about the music.