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Inspired by BACH
Julius Berger (cello)
Oliver Kern (piano)
rec. 2013/14, Concert hall, University of Augsburg, Germany
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6302 [60:54 + 70:19]

Julius Berger has built up a considerable discography, as a brief search of the MWI site will reveal. I last heard him a while ago in The Unknown Beethoven, a Challenge Classics album with an unusual programme which impressed on numerous levels. This extensive Inspired by BACH collection has been recorded in the same venue and promises much as a concept. Berger himself has written on the subject, and we can take his statement as a launching point for this musical journey: “No composer in the history of the Western classical tradition has left as big a legacy as Johann Sebastian Bach. Like a comet that never dies out, his work continues to pervade life’s spaces, his ‘light’ remains a guide, an assurance in difficult times. Bach’s work transcends his own time and even as early as Mozart, references (perhaps even returns) to Bach are not considered regressive but are associated with notions of progress.”

This is Bach as he has been absorbed and recycled in one way or another, from more or less straight transcription via full-blooded romanticism to some touches of the contemporary. Zoltán Kodály’s transcriptions are pleasant and effective, but the focus on disc 1 is around Brahms’s Sonata in E minor Op. 38, which takes numerous thematic cues from Bach’s The Art of Fugue. Julius Berger has made quite a study of this, and his booklet notes are well worth investigating. Brahms published this sonata in three movements but it was originally conceived in four. The lovely second movement Adagio affetuoso from the second Cello Sonata Op. 99 is reckoned to have been the movement that was removed, so you won’t be hearing any really new Brahms but the ‘completion’ of Op. 38 makes it into even more of a symphonic chamber-music masterpiece than before. Berger and Kern go for a fairly stately view on the work as a whole, with the sprightly third movement not quite lifting into dance mode, and the contrapuntal and busy Allegro gaining its energy through dynamics and emphases rather than exciting speed. I have to say I quite like this view on the piece, which at least means that the clarity of the music is nicely delivered, and neither musician is trying to wring every emotional ounce out of each gesture. This may or may not have to do with the ecclesiastical ‘reserve’ that we associate with Bach, but even stopping short of drops of sweat and broken strings emerging from your speakers there is plenty of eloquence on show, and this is a very satisfying performance indeed.

Berger theorises that Brahms may well have taken the theme from The Art of Fugue from a copy of the book ‘Discourses on the Fugue’ by Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg which was part of the great man’s archive. This gave Berger the idea to ask his friend Johannes X. Schachtner to write a piece on Bach. Schachtner’s Relief Nr. 3 opens with avant-garde drama, but its generally reflective-nature-with-interruptions derives from gentle and at times mildly traumatic transformations of Bach that seem resolutely to avoid shining any real new light on the original while also avoiding the creation of anything really new. It’s a nice enough piece, but to my mind a missed opportunity.

The focus of disc 2 is Max Reger’s Sonata in A minor, Op. 116, a high-romantic tour de force in which the B-A-C-H motief occurs several times, and, as with the Brahms sonata, the presence of the chorale ‘Wenn ich einmal sall scheiden’ is woven throughout the entire piece. These are features you wouldn’t necessarily be aware of in the turmoil of the denser material, but having been sensitised by all of that surrounding Bach there is more chance of us ‘getting’ some of the references. In any case this is a lovely performance of a richly rewarding work.

Another cross-fertilisation thrown up by the Reger sonata, and that is its use of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3 Op. 69 as a structural model, and from which the first movement is played here as it appears in an autograph at the Beethovenhaus in Bonn. The connection with Bach comes in part from its dedication, ‘inter lacrimas et luctum’ and therefore with the aria Es ist vollbracht from the St Johannes Passion. All of these fascination interconnections can either be taken or left – either way this is all highly enjoyable listening. It may or may not be worth knowing that Kodály’s unexpectedly Mussorgskian sounding Three Chorale Preludes ‘provide a similar intellectual context to Reger’, but it is certainly a poignant footnote that Reger’s Bach-infused Aria was played at his own funeral.

It will be no big surprise that these performances respond to the idiom of their composers rather than to that of Bach, but I mention it in case anyone was wondering. These are for the most part red-blooded pieces that take Bach as their source or inspiration in one way or another, which brings us back to Julius Berger’s quote at the start of this review. This programme with its tweaked and unusual versions of more familiar works is full of interest and new lights being shone on well-loved music. Bach is respected and revered here, but he is also allowed to breathe and expand in a way which is quite inspiring. Composers continue to use Bach today and will until civilisation collapses and probably beyond. If you want to bathe in the nineteenth and early twentieth century view of him then this is indeed a very good place to immerse yourself.

Dominy Clements
CD 1
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) / Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Präludium und Fuge d-moll BWV 853
Präludium [2:52]
Fuge [6:29]
Johannes X. SCHACHTNER (1985)
Relief Nr. 3 – „ich schrei aus tiefer Not“ frei nach dem
Präludium BWV 686 von Johann Sebastian Bach (2013) [5:16]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Choralvorspiel „Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden“ nach BWV 727 [2:08]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sonate e-moll Op. 38 [36:12]
(First recording of the probable first version in four movements)
Johannes BRAHMS/Albrecht GÜRSCHING (1934)
Variationen nach einem altdeutschen Minnelied „Verstohlen geht der Mond auf“ [5:10]
Johann Sebastian BACH
„Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit“ nach BWV 106 (Actus tragicus) [2:45]
Transcription dedicated to Andreas Barner
CD 2
Johann Sebastian BACH/ Zoltán KODÁLY
Drei Choralvorspiele
I „Ach was ist doch unser Leben“ (BWV 743) [5:49]
II „Vater unser im Himmelreich“ (BWV 762) [5:04]
III „Christus der uns selig macht“ (BWV 747) [5:22]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonate A-Dur op. 69 – Urfassung des ersten Satzes (1808) [11:48]
Johann Sebastian BACH
„Es ist vollbracht“ nach der Arie aus der Johannespassion BWV 245 [5:03]
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Sonate a-moll op. 116 (1910) [32:15]
Aria op. 103a Nr. 3 (1908) [4:56]



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