Tortured suite

Here’s the challenge facing this review: it’s going to concentrate more on the piece than on the recording.

That’s what I get for spending most of my time reviewing Japanese indie rock bands than keeping my four years of classical music training current.

But having not heard Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite before, I have no real point of reference with which to evaluate Kronos’ performance.

So Kronos — you dodged the bullet on this one.

I am, however, familiar with Kronos’ discography, and the ensemble is no stranger to music borne out of personal crisis or ideological unrest. From Dmitri Shostakovich’s angry and mournful Quartet for Strings No. 8 to Franghiz Ali-Zade’s passionate Mugam Sayagi, composers, like other artists, channel their frustrations into their works.

Alban Berg composed his Lyric Suite in a time when structure for the sake of structure started to impose itself on musical expression.

Although the piece was written in 1925, the inspiration for it wasn’t revealed till more than 50 years later, when American composer George Perle came across an annotated copy of the score sent to Berg’s would-be mistress, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin.

Berg wrote the Lyric Suite to memorialize the eight days in which he and Hanna secretly longed for each other. In the piece, he quotes Alexander von Zemlinsky and Richard Wagner, while also musically notating his and Hanna’s initials into the score.

Titling the piece Lyric Suite, Berg implied the work was extracted from an unwritten opera, the theme of which he left listeners to determine for themselves.

If obfuscation was Berg’s intent, he certainly did an excellent job. But conveying the grande passion (as its described in the liner notes) of his not-affair? Less so.

Berg certainly captures the psycholgoical dissonance of longing — Tortured Suite would have been a more journalistic title for the work. And he also symbolizes the relationship numerically throughout the score: 23 to represent him, 10 to represent her. The results aren’t readily apparent to the listener.

But any warmth Berg may have felt for his object of desire gets lost in the analytical methods he uses to express that love. The piece is complex, yes. It’s challenging, yes. It expresses frustration and isolation, oh hell yeah.

But warmth?

That doesn’t mean Berg at any point should have gone tonal on the listener, but George Crumb’s more grotesque, Vietnam War-inspired Black Angels also employs numerology and quotation to express its point — and it’s not missed on the listener.

For this recording, engaging soprano Dawn Upshaw performs a vocal part restored by Perle originally intended to conclude the quartet.

Berg made the right decision to leave the vocal part out. The piece feels like it ends at the fifth movement, and a singer making an appearance in the finale seems forced.

For its part, Kronos handles Berg’s score with its usual hands-on interpretive approach. But it’s tough to inject much emotion into a piece that sets out to be cold.