Written more than a century apart, the Berg and Beethoven violin concertos are not often considered a natural pairing - but that is exactly how they come across on this new album. These fresh-sounding performances by violinist Isabelle Faust, under the peerless guidance of Claudio Abbado and his specially assembled Orchestra Mozart, make a compelling case for matching the 1930s angst-ridden, serial-inflected Berg with Beethoven's optimistic first flush of early 19th century romanticism.
The album begins with Berg, the dark intensity of its opening enhanced by the atmospherically reverberant acoustic of the Manzoni Auditorium in Bologna where the recordings were made. The shadowy soundworld is deeply evocative, yet the transitory wind and brass solos flit into the light with absolute clarity. Faust enters with sinewy silkiness, caressing the solo line with a tangible sense of longing. She combines a supremely beautiful tone with a sense of purpose throughout, and blends homogeneously with the vast - though sparingly employed - orchestral forces.
Berg wrote the concerto in an ultimately futile attempt to overcome his trauma at the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius. Though tragic, Abbado and Faust offer an agile view of the work painted in subtle light and shade. The macabre waltz has a mesmeric buoyancy; with Abbado's expert woodwind balancing, the cathartic Bach chorale sounds as if it really is being played on an organ. The whole experience is extraordinarily moving.
If you play the album continuously, the warmth of Beethoven's opening bars emerges miraculously from Berg's valedictory bleakness. Abbado's Beethovenian credentials are second to none. He captures the first movement's epic grandeur, while ensuring a sense of flow with a relatively brisk tempo and nimble articulation. But whereas the generous acoustic bloom is an asset to the Berg, here it often blurs Abbado's carefully planned detail. Some of the orchestral tuttis lack the last ounce of urgency and excitement, but that is not a problem in the joyously gambolling finale, which has an especially thrilling coda.
Faust's sweet tone is consistently delightful, and she imparts due weight to the music with a light touch and comparatively sparing vibrato. Her invigorating performance offers an abundance of cogent new insights into one of the most well-loved concertos in the repertoire.