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Julius BURGER (1897-1995)
Stille der Nacht for baritone and orchestra (c.1919) [10:55] ¹
Scherzo for strings (1939) [5:02]
Cello Concerto (1938) [32:14] ²
Variations on a Theme of Karl [Carl] Philipp Emanuel Bach (c.1945) [19:03]
Legende for baritone and orchestra (c.1919) [12:43] ¹
Michael Krauss (baritone) ¹
Maya Beiser (cello) ²
Radio Symphonie Orchester, Berlin/Simone Young
rec. Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin, September 1994
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC 0001 [78:23]




This enterprising release from Toccata Classics brings to the fore the music of Julius Burger, born Bürger, composer, conductor, arranger, pianist, and exile. He was born in the Monarchical stronghold, Vienna, in 1897 and studied under Schreker and Humperdinck. In the city in the early 1920s his fellow students included Hába, Křenek, Rathaus, and Jascha Horenstein. Burger began conventionally as a répétiteur in Karlsruhe and then, on Bruno Walter’s instigation, Burger went to the Met in New York as assistant to the redoubtable Bodanzky, returning to Europe as accompanist to the perhaps even more redoubtable Ernestine Schumann-Heink. He was Klemperer’s assistant at the groundbreaking Kroll before leaving for Vienna on Hitler’s advent as Chancellor. Shortly before the Anschluss he was on the move again and in 1939 emigrated to America for good.

Here he found himself back at the Met as an assistant conductor and accompanist; his career was relatively low-key and his original compositions only very occasionally aired. There was a cello-piano reduction of the Cello Concerto at New York Town Hall in 1952 and some other performances over the years. Fortunately interest in Burger, his life and music increased and he lived long enough to hear these performances, made in 1994 and only now released commercially – a co-production with Deutschland Radio and released under licence from Sony Classical, from whose grasp they have presumably been prised.

Burger is here revealed as standing in the central Austro-German mainstream; Schreker, Mahler, Zemlinsky, Korngold and Strauss are names that spring to mind – as does that of Debussy. The excellent early c.1919 Stille der Nacht for baritone and orchestra has strong impressionist hues but also hints at absorption of late Wagner and a keen ear for Mahler’s song cycles. The piano – Burger’s own instrument of course – is used discreetly for colouristic effect and the orchestration throughout remains light and aerated, not heavy or cloying. There’s occasionally some luscious string moulding, owing something to Strauss and Korngold, and some stirring grandiloquent moments as well. The companion Legende for baritone and orchestra is more obviously over-heated than Stille der Nacht and here we find some Hebraic oboe/drone writing – derived perhaps from Mahlerian example – and some powerful bell chime music, flourishing late romanticism writ large.

The Scherzo for strings (1939) is a riot of cross rhythms – energetic, vital music with moulded romantic melodies arching through it – wafting in perhaps one should say. And at five minutes it hardly outstays its welcome. The Variations on a Theme of Karl [Carl] Philipp Emanuel Bach is a later affair, dating from Burger’s American sojourn. The model is possibly Brahms’ Haydn variations though the results are very different. Burger can be a touch too heavy in places but elsewhere one finds him suave, deft and engaging. There’s panache in the second variation, warm string contours in the fifth, rustic sounding moments in the sixth and maybe just a touch of justified portent in the finale.

The 1938 Cello Concerto is the most important work here. The slow movement has been recorded before - by cellist Jan Vogler with the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony and Thomas Sanderling on Berlin Classics New CD 0017672BC. It was coupled with Barber’s Cello Concerto and Adagio for strings and Korngold’s Concerto; strange though only to present a torso of the Burger concerto. Now the Toccata recording shows the concerto in a proper light. It’s a substantial three-movement, thirty-two minute score. It opens in intense, introspective and lyric fashion and then breaks into the allegro proper – not unlike classical models, say a Haydn symphony. The slow movement was later dedicated to Burger’s mother who had died on the way to Auschwitz (shot out of hand). It has the feel of a passacaglia – with elegant cello and wind lines sounding slightly but not obviously Jewish. There’s a strong sense of suffused power but the tolling is certainly more central European than anything bardic; certainly there’s no kind of kinship with, say, Bloch. The finale is lively – there are hints of Hindemith here, unusually so for Burger if the other works are reflective of the influences on him – though Burger is more overtly expressive. There are changes of mood and moments of reflection and over-arching reminiscences of the mood of the opening movement.

All the performances are outstanding. The recording is first class as well and Toccata’s documentation serves as a model for how an unknown composer should be presented in biographical and musical form. Burger’s was a keen voice, not necessarily either original or ground breaking, but one which presented a strong musical blood line, finely absorbed, excellently orchestrated, thematically interesting, dramatically convincing, and expressively controlled yet eloquent. A composer well worth getting to know, especially in performances as expert as these.

Jonathan Woolf






 


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