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Thursday, January 30, 2020

Alban Berg, Complete Songs, Borgioni, Lombardi, Milhofer, Kho, Kohler, Farinelli

The art song in classical music qualifies as one of the more esoteric genres from the standpoint of the general music listening public. A music appreciation course might not devote much time to it, possibly none. It typically consists in performance of the no-frills musical essence via a trained voice, piano and poetic text. It does not have the story-theater-drama of opera, the broad spectrum of sound color of the symphony orchestra, etc. Yet of course some of the most wonderful music lives on in the classical song.

It the Modern period that is as true as ever. And it might help explain why Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck (and to a lesser extent his Lulu) occupies the time of so many music lovers as a staple of the music of last century while his songs do not attract nearly as many listeners, nor garner as many recordings, performances, etc. Yet there have been other reasons, too, some unfortunate circumstances which recent decades have helped redress.

With a new box set, a very first recording of Berg's Complete Songs (Brilliant 95549 3-CDs) on the budget Brilliant label we have a chance to explore and consider the whole of it. There is a great deal and it is remarkable to hear it in these generally nicely turned performances.

The bulk of the output resides in the Jugendlieder, which as the liners tell us Berg composed between 1901 and 1908. Up until her death in 1976, widow Helene Berg had kept the songs shrouded in secrecy, forbidding their study or publication. Thereafter, between 1985 and 1987, many of the songs were finally published, Fischer-Dieskau in 1985 recorded 22 of them for EMI, and then as late as 2015 the remaining batch of Jugendlieder were finally published as well.

The Brilliant box is the very first recording of the complete Jugendlieder, and it takes up two and a half CDs, so that is saying a great deal. The music is of a consistently high level, allowing us to follow Berg's gradual evolution from a very sophisticated Late Romantic melodic-harmonic point of view to a gradual approach to the edge of tonality and beyond, which of course he was to realize fully in the later years, some of which we hear in the later songs, of which more below.

The complete Jugendlieder are a revelation. This compendious assortment shows us a young Berg remarkably assured and inventive. If he was not quite to scale the heights of his later work, he nonetheless holds his very own among lieder producers of the early 20th century, at least to my ears.

The remaining 19 lieder on Disk 3 continue unraveling choice Berg in more of the early and some rather wondrous later examples. That includes some sublime moments in the Sieben Fruhe Lieder, the three Vier Lieder, Op. 2, the five Altenberg Lieder, Op. 4, Schliesse mir die Augen beide (1925), the Lied der Lulu taken from the opera, and the spoken-piano Klagengesang von der edlen Frauen des Asan-Aga.

The text to the songs are not included in the booklet presumably for space and budget concerns but they are posted on the label's website.

Performances are all very good thanks to Mauro Borgioni, baritone, Elisabetta Lombardi, mezzo-soprano, Mark Milhofer, tenor, Myung Jea Kho, soprano, Stefanie Kohler, speaker, and Filippo Farinelli accompanying on piano. The recordings sound full and bright.

Anyone who loves Berg and/or lieder will no doubt find as I did a very great deal to appreciate and experience. This complete edition is nothing short of a revelation and something to return to frequently. Content and the nice budget price give every reason to grab this one. In its own way it constitutes a seminal recording event. Kudos to all involved.

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