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Norbert BURGMÜLLER (1810-1836)
Overture in F minor from the opera Dionys, Op.5 (1832-34) [11:55]
Piano Concerto in F sharp minor, Op.1 (1828-29) [33:10]
Entr’actes, Op.17 (1827-28) [17:06]
Tobias Koch (piano)
Hofkapelle Stuttgart/Frieder Bernius
rec. February 2012, Musikhochschule Stuttgart
CARUS 83.297 [62:27]

Amongst the casualties of the Romantic era, Norbert Burgmüller, contemporary of Mendelssohn and Chopin, is now little remembered. He suffered ill health. A doomed love affair seems to have led to epilepsy, from which he died in 1836, whilst trying to alleviate his condition in the spa in Aachen. It was no less a figure than Robert Schumann who wrote that, after the death of Schubert, no musical loss had been more grievous.
 
His two symphonies have already been released by Carus. They now turn to the rest of his orchestral music, of which little survives. The operatic fragment Dionys does not survive, but its overture does. Twelve minutes in length it’s cut from Weberian cloth. Opening portentously it develops a strong sense of atmosphere and romantic expression. Burgmüller handles his horns and winds with acumen and laces the music with a good sense of panache and no little style. It’s a pity that he struggled with the text of the opera, which he deemed poor, and which was the principal reason the work was never finished. The overture is highly proficient, and good enough for Mendelssohn to have performed in concert.
 
The Piano Concerto, composed earlier, is his Op.1. Completed in 1829, it’s cast in the three expected movements. It has the distinction, apparently, of being the first piano concerto to sport trombones. It’s written in F sharp minor, a quite unusual key. These pointers are enough to suggest an individuality of spirit and a lack of conformity. Those hopes are not wholly met but it is certainly a concerto worth getting to know. The piano steals in after the orchestral introduction. A contemporary critic wrote of the work as a ‘strange symphonic poem full of sumptuous, wild geniality’. This presumably alludes to the role allocated to the orchestra, both in general and in specific localised incidents such as the unusual cello solo in the slow movement. The cello plays deft figuration whilst the piano pirouettes around him. The cello solo should not be taken as a precursor of that in Brahms’ second concerto; it serves a wholly different function, but it is unusual enough to note its presence, and it represents another example of the composer’s questing imagination as to form and function. The confident handling of the finale is exemplified by the exchanges between piano and orchestra and drama is built up and sustained to the very end, where the percussion beats out a triumphant tattoo.
 
The Op.17 Entr’actes, of which there are four, date to 1827-28. It’s unclear as to whether these were intended for specific staged works or plays at the Kassel Court Theatre. Nevertheless these show the composer at his most lyrically unbuttoned and orchestrally deft. The wind writing is especially cherishable and there’s winsome charm in the second of the four, a lovely scherzo; hints of Schubert here. Both the concluding Andantinos are eventful and enshrine plenty of characterisation.
 
The soloist in the concerto is Tobias Koch who plays a Viennese Bösendorfer dating from 1849. Its use is interesting, not least because an attempt is being made to bind the solo with the orchestral writing in a dialogue that denotes integration not opposition. That’s also made easier by virtue of the size of the Hofkapelle Stuttgart under their director Frieder Bernius: 7-6-5-4-2 for the strings, which gives an idea that the Bösendorfer is cast with, not against, the accompaniment, though the band plays modern instruments. The performances, as a result, are most sympathetic to the idiom.
 
Jonathan Woolf


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