Masterclass: Baiba Skride on the Berg Violin Concerto, first movement

Baiba skride by marco borggreve030

The Latvian violinist discusses the importance of thorough planning, together with emotional engagement, when playing this awkward work

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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.

Click here to view the sheet music for this work in our digital edition

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