Tuesday 9 October 2012

Alban Berg's Lulu

This recommended recording is not going to win me many friends - but here goes anyway. Alban Berg's opera Lulu is - far more than any other piece of 20th Century music - widely, loudly, and almost universally reviled.  And for the most part by people who have never actually heard it.  Yet whenever a serious production is put on, it plays to packed opera houses around the world.   Lulu is an atonal composition, a 12-tone work, with more apparently to do with mathematics than musicianship.  In principle, the whole idea is quite preposterous...


Lulu is widely held to be a piece which is impossible to conduct, impossible to play, impossible to sing, and - according to the probably apocryphal observation of Alban Berg himself - impossible to whistle on your way out of the opera house ("Vy don't zey vissle my tunes???").  So what's the big deal here?

Well, for one thing, Lulu has without peer the most ambitious, complex, nuanced, and far-reaching plot of any opera yet undertaken.  And compositionally, it is a mathematical tour-de-force - unlike Monty Python's "Bolton/Ipswich", it essentially Palindromic - something that plays the same backwards as forwards.  Listen to the "film music" in the middle of Act II, where you can easily spot the center point (played on the piano) around which the music reverses itself and unfolds backwards to the end of the opera.  The plot is convolutedly palindromic - characters appear in Act I and disappear at the corresponding points in Act III, and so on throughout the opera. The palindromic aspects further tie into the characters, acts, and motivations of the dramatis personae, and the general development of the plot and sub-plots.

OK, so it's a great piece to study.  But how about to listen to?  Well, frankly, it is not as totally and completely cacophonous as you might imagine.   Sure, it can be a bit of an assault, but once you give the piece some time, you can become surely drawn into it. I am actually getting to the point where I can recognize occasional snippets - although I won't be able to whistle any of them!

Here I am recommending a version in English (the original is sung in German), offered for download by Chandos.  It is a very assured performance, and probably the best way to make a first-time introduction to what is arguably the most formidable piece of music ever written.  The sound is cleanly captured, and the vocals delivered clearly and with conviction.  Paul Daniel conducts the English National Opera.

The only version available for download is in 16/44.  Although the original recoding is supposedly done in DSD, I cannot get a straight answer from Chandos as to why they won't make a high-resolution version available.  Perhaps you can pester them too!

In any case, I seriously recommend this recording to anybody with the desire and ambition to broaden their personal horizons.