The Alban Berg piano sonata was his first composition to be published, and the only one to carry an opus number (Op 1), though he had already composed a number of songs.  The sonata is a single movement work, in sonata form, but eschews traditional harmony for atonality. When one begins to understand the language, the tonal and rythmic relationships, and ceases to wait longingly for the melody to appear and the harmonies to resolve in the expected cadences, one discovers a plethora of new ways in which music can communicate expressively using elements other than those that have served as its basis for centuries.

Berg is often referred to as the "romantic" of the Second Vienna School.  This is a mistake and often leads to what you will hear in many of the performances you will hear, the desire to romanticize the Berg piano sonata with stylistic effects entirely unsuitable to his music.

Yudina plays this piece as though she around when it was written.  She was.  Gould wasn't, he was born some years later, and the three performances below, different as they are from each other, are played like he was in the process of composing the piece.  And Brendel, great musician that he is, gives an impassioned performance that is entirely in keeping with the music, as does Hadjinikos.

Another such stellar musician is Uchida whose grasp of the Berg piano sonata is such that she is able to create phrasing entirely consistent with the structure of the music while somehow recalling to the ear of the listener linear patterns that are familiar. The performance by Kurtev is also excellent.

Schleiermacher, Damerini, and especially Sirodeau, all of whom grew up speaking this language, give very fine performances of the Berg piano sonata.  All three allow the music to dictate their performances and don't impose any expressive devices designed to "help" the ear along a difficult path.  As a result, the innate drama of the sonata is allowed to flourish to very satisfying ends. The performances by Gödény and Lonquich are also noteworthy.  While more outward looking than I deem appropriate, these are examples of an alternative interpretation that does not violate the music.

Perahia's performance is much too pretty for my taste, as though he were desperately searching for anything he could make sound like the music of an earlier age.  Grimaud indulges in too much 19th century emoting and the motivic essence of the music is lost for me.  She doesn't seem to get the music at all.  Hamelin does a creditable job, but the ghost of the 19th century still lingers, and lingers still more in performances by Röder, Poli, Say and Soloviev.

An apparent problem with these performances is that the pianists own ears, wanting so much to make prettier music in a style that they understand, seem to pay little heed to the markings in the score of the Berg piano sonata, a practice that may be acceptable when playing the music of the previous two centuries in which the assumption is often that most of the markings were supplied by those who edited the music in an attempt to recreate their own interpretations.  When you play music in which the importance of melodic line and harmonic progression are abnegated in favor of tonal and structural relationships, and those of tempo, dynamics and color, the composer's intentions with respect to these are paramount.  The motivic nature of the music is lost, as is the aural verticality.  And the emphases will be in all the wrong places.

But for me, and surprisingly, the true horror here is Shura Cherkassky whose playing of this masterpiece is so intent on making it sound like Scriabin that it ends up sounding like bad cocktail music.  Much the same could be said of Petrova, but in her case, but without the high class pianism.

Maria Yudina
Soviet pianist (1899 - 1970)

recorded in 1964

Jakob Gimpel
Polish pianist (1906 - 1989)

recorded live in 1979

Shura Cherkassky
Ukranian-born American pianist (1909 - 1995)

recorded live in 1963

and at some other time

George Hadjinikos
Greek pianist (b 1923)

recorded live in 1967

Alfred Brendel
Austrian pianist (b 1931)

recorded live in 1982



Glenn Gould
Canadian pianist (1932 - 1982)

recorded in 1953



a later video

and a slower, more ruminative performance

Murray Perahia
American pianist (b 1947)

recorded in 1987

Dame Mitsuko Uchida
Japanese-born British pianist (b 1948)

Massimiliano Damerini
Italian pianist (b 1951)



Atanas Kurtev
contemporary Bulgarian pianist

Steffen Schleiermacher
German pianist (b 1960)

Alexander Lonquich
German pianist (b 1960)

recorded live in 1987

Marc-André Hamelin
Canadian pianist (b 1961)

recorded live in 2013

Hélène Grimaud
French pianist (b 1969)

recorded live in 2010

and in 2011

Christophe Sirodeau
French pianist (b 1970)

recorded in 1995

Fazil Say
Turkish pianist (b 1970)

recorded live in 2000

Roberto Poli
contemporary Italian pianist

recorded live in 2001

Marta Gödény
contemporary Hungarian pianist

recorded live in 1997

Seda Röder
contemporary Turkish pianist



Eugene Soloviev
contemporary Russian pianist

Anna Petrova
contemporary Bulgarian pianist

Mădălina–Claudia Dănilă
Romanian pianist (b 1990)

recorded in 2013

For those of you who enjoy murder mysteries, here is my first with a strong musical polemic as background

Murder in the House of the Muse

which is also available as an audiobook.

And this is the more recently published second mystery in the series:

Murder Follows the Muse

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