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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Sonatas: Hob.XVI/1 in C, XVI/3 in C, XVI/4 in D, XVI/7 in C, XVI/8 in G, XVI/34 in E minor, XVI/37 in D, XVI/44 in G minor, XVI/46 in A flat
Maria Bergmann (piano)
SWR recordings, Hans Rosbaud-Studio Baden-Baden, 1961-1976
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC CD 93.081 [76:03]

 

The name of Maria Bergmann (1918-2002) was new to me, but after reading the note by Rainer Peters I realise that if any of my readers hail from Germany, in particular from the South-Western part of Germany, and cut their listening teeth any time between 1st October 1946 and the mid-Seventies (Peters doesn’t tell us exactly when she retired), then hers will be as much of a household breed as those of the newsreaders and presenters of the day. For Maria Bergmann belonged to that extinct breed (I’m not sure that it ever existed in England) called a Radio Pianist. That is, a permanent employee of the Südwestfunk who had to play just whatever came up. Let Mr. Peters take up the tale:

"Maria Bergmann was always available. Since, for obvious reasons, there were hardly any sound-recording media in those days, she worked at the microphone nearly every day, accompanied musicians passing through, had set programmes to do, and spontaneously played intermezzi between programs. She turned up at the studio in the evenings to fill gaps between spoken programs, and frequently had to play accompaniments for auditions. Believe it or not, in her very first month of work she had fifteen days of full-scale live programs to play, including songs, piano and chamber music – from Scarlatti to Debussy, from Liszt to Bernstein. And so it went on, day after day, month after month, year after year. The computer in the SWR archive returns an incredible 2,700 hits when the name of Maria Bergmann is entered".

Mr. Peters mentions, among the 160-odd instrumentalists and singers whom she accompanied, Accardo, Grumiaux, Szerying, Starker, Fournier, Navarra, Christa Ludwig, Edith Mathis, Souzay and Tear. Furthermore, contemporary music held no terrors for her; she played the Schoenberg Piano Concerto and the Stravinsky Capriccio (under the baton of the delighted composer), and later Henze, Boulez and Stockhausen.

There is a danger that, faced with an artist who was practically able to do everything, we will mutter "Jack of all trades, master of none". The picture which comes into our minds is that of the enormously talented sight-reader who can make a decent shot at anything but has none of those special insights cultivated by pianists who limit their repertoire to a small range of composers and works for whom they feel a particular affinity. I’m afraid that the present disc doesn’t entirely dispel that impression. We must also wonder how her career would have developed if she had followed the career path of a "normal" concert pianist. But I think she must have been a workaholic by nature or she could never have stuck it out all those years.

It is a pity we are not told the dates of the individual recordings. My ears tell me there are three sessions involved here. The group of very early sonatas has a closely recorded piano, brilliant but not aggressive, sounding a little like a fortepiano (was it a Bösendorfer, maybe?). Bergmann brings a bright, vivacious touch to these works with a minimum of pedalling and a nice sense of phrasing. She certainly brings them out of the schoolroom and these performances will make useful models for aspiring youngsters (Sample 1: Track 1 from beginning).

Of the later sonatas, the first three (E minor, D major and G minor) are recorded with a much more distant microphone placing in what sounds to be a largish empty studio with a fair amount of reverberation. The sound has more bloom to it, but also quite a degree of wooliness. Maybe this affected my perception of the performances, but they seem a lot less insightful, even laboured, as in the relentless D minor slow movement of the D major and the joyless finale of the same sonata (far from Presto ma non troppo) (Sample 2: Track 21 from beginning). She usually gives us first movement repeats; the omission in the first movement of the G minor sounds like a candid admission that the music sounds boring at this tempo. All in all, it sounds as if preparation time was at a premium.

The recording of the A flat major sonata is somewhere in between; it has bloom but also presence. The performance is better, too. Bergmann takes her time over the Allegro moderato first movement but finds vivacity as well as serenity in it. She finds the right depth for the impressive Adagio (Sample 3: Track 25 from beginning) and the Presto finale bubbles with spirit. I should point out, though, that divergences between what she plays and the Henle Edition, of minor import in the other sonatas, are striking here. Henle Urtext editions are generally unimpeachable (their Haydn was published since Bergmann’s day) but I suppose there may be alternative sources for this sonata.

I don’t quite know what sort of a recommendation this adds up to. The evidence is that the Bergmann legacy would be worth investigation, but with a little more caution than has been applied here. Does that Stravinsky performance survive, for instance? And how about her collaborations with the great names listed above? As a taste of Haydn sonatas, the problem is that three out of the four mature works are unremarkably done so I can only really recommend it if you are particularly looking for a good performance of the A flat major or the early pieces.

Christopher Howell

 



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