If Alban Berg is considered the most accessible member of the Second Viennese School’s big three, certainly more so than Schoenberg and Webern after they’d crossed the Rubicon of atonality, it’s because alone of the trio he respected his heritage, not merely to acknowledge it but to embrace it and join hands with Mahler, Richard Strauss and the late Romantics. Schoenberg, his mentor, had previously been one of their number, which may explain his disapproval at Berg’s hedonistic way with harmony because there’s no non-smoker more zealous than a reformed puffer.

Christiane Karg sings Berg with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra
© Philharmonie Essen

The Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven Early Songs) were completed in 1908 in their original version with piano, then two decades later revised by the composer in the crunchingly heady orchestral version we hear most often today. They’re chromatic heaven and a gift for an expressive soprano like Christiane Karg. In their sinuous carnality the songs carry an unmistakable whiff of Strauss, for whose Vier letzte Lieder they were a late programming replacement when Fabio Luisi stepped in to conduct.

Karg proved to be a magnificent interpreter of these songs. In the first of them, Nacht, she coloured her voice to evoke the mystery of mists and clouds as they give way to early morning light, then added a hint of Weimar Kabarett to the poet Carl Hauptmann’s allusions to ‘hidden places’. In the ensuing Schilflied it was the orchestra’s turn to shine, almost literally, as Nikolaus Lenau’s verse sings of hissing reeds that lament and whisper. Here, as throughout, Luisi conducted batonless, Boulez-style, but unlike his late colleague he caressed Berg’s lush lines and revelled in their post-Romantic sweep. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra was a pearl throughout, not least the two flautists in Traumgekrönt (Rilke) whose interlacing figures provoked shudders of Straussian delight; but it was Karg, from her evocation of spiritual contentment in Im Zimmer (Schlaf) to the sensuous romanticism of the climactic Sommertage (Hohenberg) who made this an unforgettable quarter-hour.

Fabio Luisi conducts the Mahler Chamber Orchestra
© Philharmonie Essen

The leap back in time from these earthly vignettes to the heavenly lengths of Schubert's ‘Great’ C major symphony was less jarring than one might have expected, despite the century or so between the composers’ dates, since both works are Austrian to their core. Berg the dark harmonist and Schubert the blithe melodist are a musical yin and yang: the dark complements the light and each work gained in impact by being paired with the other.

Fabio Luisi
© Philharmonie Essen

The enterprising and polished Mahler Chamber Orchestra had felt completely at home in the Berg score, but despite the conductor’s bouncing tempi and the musicians’ renowned virtuosity there was something of the underfed about the sound in Schubert’s hour-long epic. The complement of upper strings was too modest in the tuttis and the picture felt stretched whenever it needed to fatten. That apart, Luisi’s reading brimmed with vitality and purpose – especially in the second movement where he went for it hell for leather. Maybe some energetic Alpine walks prompted his brisk Andante whose lashings of con moto helped keep it fat-free and sprightly. Ditto the Scherzo, which fizzed from the outset and returned after the Trio for an even faster wrap-up. The Allegro vivace finale tripped athletically towards a hair-raising conclusion that begged for an audience to set the seal on it. In the event it took a camera lensful of empty seats to bring this invigorated listener back to earth.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream presented by Philharmonie Essen