For me, this has been the most polarising of all concertos. The first time I heard it was in a music class at school and I hated it. I thought, ‘What is this? I don’t understand it! How can it be one of the greatest concertos?’ At that time I was not a fan of modern music in general: I couldn’t hear the melodies or the exceptional harmonies, and as a teenager I wasn’t open to finding them.
I regret that now, because later on, out of curiosity, I started to practise the Berg and I fell completely in love with it. It took me a little time to understand how the violin fits with the orchestra, and the genius of the amazing themes and polyphonies, but when I did, it completely turned my ideas around. Now I am fascinated by how much information there is in the music, every time I play it.
This was the last piece that Berg wrote, and he never heard it himself. (The manuscript is dated 11 August 1935; he died on 24 December of the same year.) It was commissioned by violinist Louis Krasner and dedicated to the daughter of Alma Mahler, Manon Gropius, who had recently died of polio aged 18, with the words, ‘To the memory of an angel.’ Krasner gave the premiere of the work at the Palau de la Música in Barcelona, in April 1936.
It deals with death and loss, and there’s always a myth that composers’ last pieces have a certain special emotion to them. That may or may not be true, but to me it’s incredible: it’s written so mathematically, with such precision, but there is an intensity and depth of emotion in every single note.
Working with the orchestra
This is an extremely polyphonic orchestral piece with a solo violin in the middle of it, and there are many places where it’s necessary to pay close attention to what the orchestra is doing. Berg writes where the violin has the theme and where it is less important, so if you follow his markings it’s very easy to see what you’re supposed to be doing.
One of the most difficult moments is at the beginning of the concerto, where the soloist has to answer the winds with the theme. It’s one of the shakiest beginnings for violin – pianissimo on open strings – and you have to practise it a lot to get it completely secure! It’s scary, but it is complete genius; if you follow the music and the orchestra, it creates the most amazing atmosphere.
Where the quicker notes start in bar 63, be aware that the horns are playing the melody. It’s better to follow them than to insist on doing your own thing (especially because they are sitting far away and it’s hard for them to follow you). For the Viennese theme from bar 127 it is important that you can hear both the orchestra and the soloist, and the way that they answer each other. Another important place is bar 167, where the tuba has the theme – a great, low, big solo, even though it only lasts a couple of bars.
It’s a good idea to study the score and not only your own part, so that you understand where the melody goes, how Berg has built it up, and how he felt it. Learn as much as you can about the orchestral parts, where each instrument plays what, and try to think as a conductor would do, so that you have the whole score in your mind. For me, this knowledge is also vital when it comes to learning this piece off by heart and understanding the whole picture.
Always try to hear this as an emotional piece, without allowing yourself to be thrown into the mathematical nature of the music. It is made up of many shorter elements and themes, so the main challenge is to bring them together as a whole, not only through the first movement but from the beginning to the end of the entire concerto. Berg repeats certain themes many times, so it can be helpful to use these to tie everything together. He also uses commas – for example in bars 42, 83 and 128 – to show breaths and to indicate that something new is happening. Some players treat the commas as an indication to stop, but this can make the music too divided. Be careful not to lose the overall line. Listen to the piece over and over again: find different recordings and approaches (for my choices, see box); every time, listen for different instruments in the orchestra to draw yourself more deeply into the music and find all the beautiful melodies.
It’s important not to feel stuck with one set of fingerings, but at the same time I find it very helpful to plan my fingerings carefully before a performance, to give me more security before I go on stage. This is especially helpful if you become nervous or forgetful in performance. Sometimes I am more free and flexible, but for the Berg it’s difficult not to write almost every fingering down, because really everything is awkward and nothing is a given!
I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best fingerings for this piece, and I’ve amended them over time, for practical reasons or because I have changed my ideas and approach. The markings printed on the next few pages are approximately what I use at the moment. For me, the most important thing is that my fingerings follow each melody and, where possible, keep it on one string – even if that makes it more difficult to play. Of course, there are places where this is not practical, so I have tried to find a way to make the melody sound as though it is on one string, but in a way that is more playable. For example, I consciously play on the A and D string from bar 218, because it helps me to match the colour of the horn, which is also playing here. This is, of course, my personal opinion: I know some people who play it on the E and A strings.
These are decisions that you will have to make for yourself. The most important thing is that you find the best way to play every melody and harmony comfortably, musically and practically. If that involves a lot of stretching and leaping, and you feel secure doing that, then why not? Every musician has to decide on the amount of risk they’re willing to take.
I have a similar approach to bowing as I do to fingering. In general I try to follow what Berg wrote, but there are moments when it is necessary to change his markings, to make them more practical – particularly when you are playing with an orchestra. In bars 6–7, for example, I find it very difficult to bring enough intensity or musicality to the hairpin if I don’t change bow. Another example is in bars 33–34, where I find it more effective to use two bows to bring out the crescendo, which is very important. There are other examples where Berg writes many notes under one long bow; in particular, I don’t think anyone would be able to follow his markings and produce a quality sound from bar 141, where he’s grouped four three-note chords per bow, in forte ! I prefer to think of these in twos, and to play them legato. Sometimes I think his bowings are intended as phrase marks rather than practical instructions.
INTERVIEW BY PAULINE HARDING
The concerto was commissioned by violinist Louis Krasner, whose 1936 recording with Berg’s friend and colleague Webern conducting, can be heard here (audio only):