Berg Composes a World in Chaos

1915. Marcel Duchamp's nude has already descended the staircase, Arnold Schoenberg's Three Orchestral Pieces, Op.16 have shattered tonality, and the old order is crumbling. World War I is well upon us, bringing with it human-caused suffering and destruction on a scale never before experienced in human history.

It is in 1915 that 30-year old Alban Berg finally heeds the advice of Schoenberg, his longtime mentor, unleashes his talents on full orchestra, and completes his Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6. Although the 22-minute composition pays homage to Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) in its use of marches, brass, and percussion, it goes well beyond Mahler's tonal boundaries in its depiction of terror and chaos.

As the San Francisco Symphony's first download-only release–its next, Tchaikovsky's Symphony 6, will reach the Web in March, 2018–the 1929 revision of Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces is available for download in resolutions up to 24/192, and at prices commensurate with its length. Although the recording's soundstage is not as wide as I had expected, it is a sonic stunner. Producer Jack Vad, working closely with Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, has captured a no-holds-barred intensity of clarity and brilliance that demands to be heard at symphonic volume levels or, if that is not possible, as loud as your system, space, housemates/partner, and neighbors will tolerate.

Both the music and music-making are extraordinary. The first movement (Prelude) starts softly, as though the terror is slowly advancing. Drumbeats, soft at first, and a disquieting melody of sorts that hints at days gone by lead to chords of devastation. Before long, we are immersed in one ominous, anything but holy racket. After a huge outburst, the music subsides into low rumbles and the final soft beat of a single drum.

The second movement, ironically titled Reigen (Round Dance): A little hesitant at first–Light and winged, begins mysteriously, with a semblance of melody. At times grotesque, in a manner that recalls Mahler and presages Shostakovich, it summoned forth, for this listener, images of a fiddler amidst the ruins.

Marsch (March) marks our major step into the void. Initially we may focus on a distant snare drum, or a lonely viola. But much too soon, we are again immersed in fighting and strife. As percussion and brass sound the alarm, you can feel people dying and edifices crumbling. The sound is horrible beyond belief, yet compellingly beautiful in its carefully structured depiction of disorder.

As combat accelerates, the drums go wild. For a short moment, the strife seems to subside. But then, the trumpets cry louder, the drums recommence, and smoke seems to rise from the landscape. At 8:55, the pace further accelerates. Are the troops in retreat, or are they surging forward? Have so many died that all we can hear is a solitary bird, singing in the charred remains of a forest? The sounds of the Vienna of old are heard briefly before the final, terrible resurgence. Never before has the reality of war been conveyed with such honesty. The work's ending is tremendous, thunderous, and inescapable in its finality. Either you must sit in dumb silence or cheer.

For music lovers accustomed to hearing the Kingdom of the Gods (Wagner's Valhalla) or the Kings of Europe (Verdi) expire in grand surges of melody, Berg's 102-year old masterpiece remains deeply unsettling. That's the point. Berg had no interest in the equivalent of Reality TV shows or fake news. Instead, he insisted on conveying the uncensored truth in purely musical terms.

The old is coming around once more. It sounds like this.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Yes, yes, yes but this is supposed also to be available in multichannel! I know that for certain because I have it (and it is remarkable) but, aside from qobuz in Europe, has anyone found a download site accessible from the USA for the multichannel release? If so, please post a link here.

PAR's picture

Sorry to disappoint but not even Qobuz has the multichannel for sale. I'm a Sublime+ member but I have never seen any multichannel offers from Qobuz. I checked this recording, hi-rez stereo, yes, but that's it.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Right. I saw the page with the "5.1" on it but never tried to download it. Pity.

You You Xia's picture

Hi Kal! the 5.1 is available on Primephonic:

Kal Rubinson's picture

Cool. Thank you, You You. ;-)

foxhall's picture

I was surprised to see the orchestra release a download only but I think it's logical and offers flexibility. Tchaikovsky 6 is on the road map? Absolutely fantastic and I would love to see the entire symphony cycle released; symphony 5 was stellar.

I've only heard one other recording of "Three Pieces" (Boulez) but I'm partial to SFS since I live in the bay area.

JVS - I really enjoy your music reviews.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thank you.

MTT clearly loves this music. I recall him programming it twice within the course of a year - either that, or in two successive seasons.

I would hope, if he wished to embark on an entire new Tchaikovsky Symphony cycle, that it would be on SACD. Michael has already done an entire Keeping Score program on the Fourth Symphony:

foxhall's picture

I agree. A composer cycle should be an event so SACD and maybe even vinyl like SFS Media did with the Mahler recordings would be proper.

Fingers crossed.

I forgot about Keeping Score. I'll give that a listen; the Shostakovich 5 video and performance from that series is among my favorites.

jimtavegia's picture

I sound some digital overs at the 3 min mark in the first selection, but I must admit I could not hear any abnormalities, but I did reduce it by -.05db anyway to leave some space. my doing that was probably too late to be of any audible benefit, but I still did it anyway. I don't like overs.

It is still beautiful at 24192 and a steal at the price.

John Atkinson's picture
jimtavegia wrote:
I [found ]some digital overs at the 3 min mark in the first selection, but I must admit I could not hear any abnormalities...

Some DACs have a little headroom to deal gracefully with inter-sample overs, Jim. Perhaps your DAC is one of those.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

jimtavegia's picture

I would be surprised that the quality of my two Focusrite Scarlett 2i2's
or my Steinberg/Yamaha UR-22 24192 USB interfaces ($150 each) would (could) be this forgiving or my 70 year old ears have failed me again. I did go into Sound Forge and reduce the levels -0.5db and can now see headroom, but the peaks have that familiar "flat-top hair cut" to the peaks that would indicate to me that some peak limiting was used and set to "0" levels and why there are really NO overs, just at "0 db".

They are still remarkable recordings and the sound at 24/192 is superb. It is clear that the next frontier is the getting rid of the ambient room noise of the recording venues which will probably never be done. All that theoretical dynamic range now and some refrigerator or HVAC system intruding in the room or on AC lines on great recordings. The best time to be an audiophile.

dougotte's picture

I read the review and was interested because I love the SACD version on the RCO Live disc. I also love the SFS/MTT SACDs I have. I've never downloaded music except when I receive a code along with an LP. If I download from HD Tracks and copy to iTunes, which format sounds best? Sorry for the newbie question.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Although the recording was made at 24/192, you're safest with 24/96.

One question to ask is if you have an outboard DAC, or if you only use the DAC internal to your computer. If the latter, it's important to find out what its limits are. If you don't have an external DAC, a simple AQ Dragonfly Red will take you to 24/96. LHLabs makes USB DACs that go far higher, as do many other companies.

Kal Rubinson's picture

"Although the disc was recorded at 24/192, you're safest with 24/96."

Disc? What disc? ;-)

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The rotating disc in my brain that seems to have lost a few bits along the way. I think I shall amend my post...

dougotte's picture

Thanks, Jason. I send to the DAC in a Parasound P5. It accepts 96kHz via USB, so there's my answer.

By the way, thanks for the wonderful review. I always appreciate the historical and cultural details about a work, and yours further helps me appreciate this piece. I listened to the RCO Live version again last night, and will look forward to MTT's version.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Hi Doug,

You may find all you need on this page:

I hope you will post your thoughts on the differences between the RCO and SFO versions.

dougotte's picture

I finally had a chance to compare the 2 recordings tonight. The MTT has longer times on the 1st and 3rd movements (5:18 vs. 5:52; 9:36 vs. 10:11), but I have to admit I don't notice slower tempi on the MTT with this music. Both performances were very spirited and emotional. On the Praeludium, the RCO fortissimi sounded harsh and distorted via my humble BeyerDynamic T90 headphones and Pangea Tube Box S, but maybe it was because it's a live recording. The MTT overall sounded less stressed. And, the clarity and separation of orchestration was much better on the MTT. Again, maybe because the RCO was live. Sometimes, the clarity and crispness of the MTT sacrificed the blending of the sections, but that's a minor complaint, and one that I probably won't notice via speakers instead of headphones.