Julius BURGER (1897-1995)
Stille Nacht, for baritone and orchestra [10:55]
Scherzo for strings [5:02]
Cello Concerto [32:14]
Variations on a Theme by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach [19:13]
Legende, for baritone and orchestra [12:43]
Michael Kraus (baritone); Maya Beiser (cello); Radio Symphonie Orchester, Berlin, cond. Simone Young
rec. 26-28 and 30 September, 1994, Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin, Germany

Among the recent clutch of CDs for review there are 10 composers, who I had never heard of before and it seems that such a number is just the tip of what appears to be an increasingly large musical iceberg. Julius Burger is one such. Whether it was Confucius or another Chinese, the curse ‘May you live in interesting times’ certainly applies to Burger, for in his 98 years he experienced more than his fair share of them, for, apart from anything else, he was one more victim of the rise of Nazism in Europe, dislocating his progress as a composer, which was well underway by the time he was forced to leave. In fact he had to wait until the age of 94 before there was a concert devoted to his music and this CD, which was recorded later in his presence in 1994, 9 months before his death, are of the first recordings of these works (there is also another recording of the two works for baritone and orchestra from 2007 on Nimbus). The unusual and fascinating story behind the above mentioned first concert devoted to Burger’s music can be seen in a clip from US TV which is well worth a watch before listening to this disc.

Another reason why his compositions were unperformed was that he was devoting much of his time to conducting and arranging, which he was in considerable demand for and additionally, the increasing popularity in the post war years for 12-tone music and other contemporary approaches that disdained ‘tunes’ meant that his music, which was rooted in the Austro-German school of composers, who became famous during the twentieth century, was overlooked. I’ve found myself saying much the same thing in respect of far too many other composers, whose music cries out to be heard but is only recently managing to achieve a hearing.

I was bowled over by the first item, Stille Nacht, which sets a poem by Swiss writer Gottfried Keller (1819-1890). Malcolm MacDonald, in his booklet notes, describes Burger’s music as being aligned to his ‘more tonal contemporaries such as Franz Schrecker, Franz Schmidt, Joseph Marx, Zemlinsky, and Korngold’. I couldn’t agree more and in fact Franz Schrecker was an influential teacher of his, who Burger and others followed from Vienna to Berlin to continue studying with. However, this opening work, which dates from around 1919 with its lush orchestration reminds me most of Richard Strauss, who I consider as one of the greatest composers of lyrical songs. As a paean to the night sky in all its majestic beauty (when unpolluted by residual lighting from towns and cities) it is apposite in the extreme, and the music evokes a star-filled sky with uncanny accuracy and breathtakingly gorgeous rhythms, while the baritone soloist immediately brings elements of Strauss’ Four Last Songs to mind.

Burger’s 1939 composition Scherzo for Strings is a thoroughly enjoyable and exciting short work, which fully to perfection exploits all the colours an orchestra can show and is reminiscent of other similar works by composers in the 1930s, such as Dag Wirén, except that Burger covers a lot of musical ground in the 5 minutes the piece takes to play. Its joyfully playful nature is totally endearing and, despite its excursion into the minor, never relaxes its upbeat disposition, which is accentuated by its predominately crosscut rhythms.

Burger’s Cello concerto is a remarkable work of richly expressed emotional depth that fully exploits the cello’s huge range from its high viola-like tones to its deepest bass notes. From the very opening you are in the presence of a seriously great work for the cello and the fact that it is hardly known is such a crying shame. It is to be hoped that this recording will help popularise it, especially among cellists, for if they were to programme it, it stands a real chance of gaining recognition more widely as it obviously richly deserves to do. The main opening introduction is sad but beautiful, though it soon gives way to a happier theme that forms the core of the first movement. Burger dedicated the heartbreakingly mournful central adagio to the memory of his mother, who, aged 78, was murdered by the Nazis while being marched to Auschwitz and, when you know this, listening to it becomes very personal. The last movement is generally more upbeat with dance-like rhythms and a return to the first subject of the first movement. At a certain moment I was reminded of Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending; such is the lyrical nature of the music. There are plenty of cello concertos that were written in the same period that are much better known than this one, but it would most definitely sit alongside them on equal terms, both musically and emotionally.

Burger’s Variations on a Theme by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, which appears to have been written in 1945 and which along with the rest of the music on this disc, as explained above, had to wait almost 40 years to be performed, is a veritable tour de force using harp, piano and a great deal of percussion as well as a full orchestra. As Malcolm MacDonald says, it reiterates Burger’s attachment to the great Austro-German tradition, while amply demonstrating his superlative arranging abilities and deep understanding of orchestral colours. Using such a broad canvas, Burger fills it with magnificent sounds, worthy of any of the great masters, whose own theme and variations went before. It belies its 20th century origins and is so wonderfully tuneful it was bound to be looked down upon (if indeed it had ever even been examined) by the disdainful musical pundits at the time, who felt that the thrust of the new was the essential way to go in the post-war world. It will, I’m sure, stand the test of time as well as proving popular if it is heard in concert halls, which it fully deserves to be. After stating the theme chosen, his first variation expands it with lush orchestration, before stripping it down to its various elements which Burger then examines in all the subsequent variations. I must say I’ve always found the art of theme and variations clever and satisfying and Burger’s is a particularly fine example, which is really an object lesson on the genre. From serious (variation 10) to knockabout (as in variation number 6) to a fragmented treatment (variation 8), completed with a magnificent coda, it is a work that rewards repeated listening.

The final work on this disc is Legende for baritone and orchestra, setting to music a poem by Christian Morgenstern from a work that deals with episodes from the life of Jesus, which is an unusual subject for a Jewish composer to chose. However, it is a sumptuous work with the odd Hebraic musical reference, which is something that is not so prevalent in the other works, which, again, is rather unusual for a Jewish composer to eschew. There are Mahlerian references, which the horns conjure up, but it is very much a truly original work that is a joy to listen to. Malcolm MacDonald says there is a hint here of what a Burger opera might have sounded like; what a shame he never completed one.

As a glimpse of the variety of music that Julius Burger composed, this is another valuable disc from Toccata Classics and if there are many more of his compositions awaiting recording let’s hope they will not wait too long before they are. The recordings are excellent and the performers too; Michael Kraus has a wonderful voice perfectly suited to this repertoire, while Simone Young marshals her forces with great command making for great performances. I loved the disc and I am sure you will too!

Steve Arloff

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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