Originally published on September 13

Andrew Davis isn’t the first orchestrator of Berg’s Opus One Piano Sonata (Theo Verbey did so in 1984) but his recent attempt is very persuasive using a “large” (Davis’s word) orchestra that includes an alto flute and an oboe d’amore, the music itself (including a varied exposition repeat), its shifting expression, responding idiomatically to Davis’s sympathetic scoring, which looks beyond whatever Berg might have done at the time (1908) and includes Lulu-like colours. Davis has also orchestrated the Passacaglia (c.1913), a fragment that Berg didn’t complete during his final twenty years but left indications of scoring, which Davis has elaborated (as have two others before him). The opening suggests Shostakovich (through the long Symphony Eleven side drum roll) before Berg takes hold.

The Three Orchestral Pieces (Opus 6), a formidable masterwork, is finely done, pristine, played with experience and assurance, although – my only caveat – the hammer-blows (as in Mahler Six) that distinguish the concluding ‘March’ are tame in music that is thrilling yet disturbing (Michael Tilson Thomas on his SFS recording delivers a knockout punch at this climactic moment), although there is much to relish from Davis. Much too in the Violin Concerto, the Berg ultimate, remembering an “angel”, with James Ehnes more emotionally involved than he can be, indeed quite voluble, with superb work from the BBCSO, immaculate (Brian Pidgeon, producer), and one of the best natural balances I have heard in a while between a violin and an orchestra (Ralph Couzens, engineer) for an involving and moving account. Gil Shaham features on MTT’s release, and I put great faith in my first version of the work, Menuhin/Boulez, a beaten-up second-hand LP found on a market stall for a few shillings.

Recorded during February this year at the Watford Colosseum, these BBCSO sessions have been particularly productive for Chandos CHSA 5270 [SACD], which is released on September 30. The booklet includes two generous essays, one of them by the conductor, very readable.


San Francisco Symphony – Michael Tilson Thomas records Alban Berg with Gil Shaham and Susanna Phillips for SFS Media.