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Erik Then-Bergh (piano) - The complete Electrola and DGG recordings
rec. 1938-1958 APR 6021 [77:30 + 76:52]
This year marks the centenary of the birth of the German pianist Erik Then-Bergh, and this release of his complete Electrola and DGG recordings by APR is both a fitting and welcome tribute. I say complete, unfortunately his 1942 Telefunken Schumann Kinderszenen has been omitted due to lack of space. Nevertheless, this 2 CD set has added value in that there’s not much of the pianist’s recorded legacy available. I have two CDs which, as far as I know, are now deleted. One is a Tahra (TAH 212) of Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos with Hermann Abendroth, the other the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 with Karel Ancerl (LYS 324
review). I see that there’s also a Furtwängler Piano Concerto with the Bavarian Radio SO/Rafael Kubelik, again on Tahra
Then-Bergh was something of a homebird, generally confining his career to Germany and devoting the last twenty years of it mainly to teaching. This goes some way towards explaining his relative neglect. As a pedagogue he was much sought-after for his inspirational guidance and analytical skills. The booklet contains some interesting reflections by his one-time student Elizabeth Hopkins. Central to his repertoire were the German composers – Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms, and he made something of a name for himself playing the music of Max Reger. This compilation offers two examples: the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Georg Philipp Telemann Op. 134, and the Piano Concerto in F minor Op. 114, his final recording from the LP era.
He was born in Hannover in 1916, and his father was his first teacher. He became a protégé of Clara Spitta and gave his first piano recital at the age of thirteen. He continued his studies with Alfred Hoehn at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, and later sought guidance in Berlin. His career as a concert pianist and recording artist took off around 1936, winning various prizes along the way. His concert-giving continued during the war on the back of the National Music Prize in Berlin, clinched in 1940. After the briefest of spells in military service he was considered exempt, as he was one of a handful of artists considered by the Third Reich ‘indispensable’. After the war he held several teaching posts in Germany. He died in 1982, aged, 65, from an unexpected heart-attack.
The commercial recordings here span twenty years. The earliest 78s were set down in 1938, and for his debut disc Then-Bergh chose the Busoni transcription of the monumental Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV1004. The last recording is the Reger Piano Concerto made for LP, in stereo, in April 1958.
In the Handel Suite, shorn of its repeats, Then-Bergh adroitly displays his contrapuntal skills and achieves some organ-like sonorities, aided by generous octave doublings in the bass. In Then-Bergh’s hands the Chaconne is a monumental edifice of great nobility. Throughout, tension and drama are sustained, yet there are sublime moments of reflection and serenity. Chopin is not a composer that features prominently in the pianist’s discography. It’s a pity as the Nocturne in B major is expressively rendered and etched with poetic lyricism. Apart from this Nocturne, there is only a later inscription of Op. 9 No. 2. In concert, however, he programmed the Piano Concerto in F minor, the Polonaise-Fantasie, Preludes and the Second Sonata.
In February 1939 the pianist set down his interpretations of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major Op. 101 and the two delightful Reger Silhouetten, pieces I’ve never come across before. Beethoven features prominently in his discography, and he recorded eight more of the sonatas after the war. Two of the composer’s Bagatelles from 1942 are included here. The performance of Op. 101 captures not only the intimacy and introspection of this late work, but also its freedom and fantasy. The dotted rhythms of the second movement are crisp and buoyant. The Adagio has a probing intensity, and in the finale the polyphonic strands of the fugue are meticulously defined. In September of 1939 Then-Bergh took Schumann’s Second Piano Sonata into the studio. He contours the ebb and flow of the work to perfection. The performance encapsulates the exultant passion and drama of the music, yet there are moments of ardent tenderness.
I’ve never been much enamoured of the Reger Piano Concerto, finding its harmonically dense opacity and lack of memorable melody not very endearing. It also somewhat outstays its welcome. What is indisputable, however, is its formidable technical demands, and Then-Bergh steps up to the mark admirably in this regard. His aristocratic pianism and varied tonal palette are particularly compelling in the Largo con gran espressione, the Concerto’s most appealing movement. I love the way he evokes its dreamy, pensive character, relishing the music’s lyricism. In the outer movements there’s sufficient drama and passion, with some Germanic humour in the finale thrown in for good measure. Hans Rosbaud is an inspirational conductor, securing favourable results from the Baden-Baden players. The Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Georg Philipp Telemann Op. 134, a piece unfamiliar to my ears, was recorded in December 1951. In the performance the pianist omits variation 21; apparently he found it ‘boring’. It’s an interesting piece, with lavish helpings of Lisztian bravura. Then-Bergh’s impressive dexterity, range of colour and imaginative flair are a constant wonder.
The audio restorations have been carried out by Seth B Winner and Mark Obert-Thorn and meet the high standard one has come to expect from APR. The booklet notes are exceptionally well-written by Frank R Latino. As well as a detailed biography of the pianist, there’s a chronological discussion of the recordings. Elizabeth Hopkins’ reminiscences, in an interview with Latino, are enlightening.
Stephen Greenbank Track-listing: CD 1 [77.39] George Frederick HANDEL (1685-1759) Suite No 4 in E minor HWV429 [8:37]
rec. November 1940, Electrola Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)/Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Chaconne from Partita No 2 in D minor, BWV1004 [13:17]
rec. 24 August 1938, Electrola Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major Op 101 [21:01]
rec. February 1939, Electrola Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Piano Sonata No 2 in G minor Op 22 [20:10]
rec. September 1939, Electrola Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849) Nocturne in B major Op 62 No 1 [7:58]
rec. Autumn 1940, Electrola Max REGER (1873-1916)
Silhouetten Op 53 Nos 2 & 6 [6:36]
rec. February 1939, Electrola
CD 2 [76.52] Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Bagatelles Op 33 Nos 1 & 4 [6:17]
rec. 27 June 1942, Telefunken Max REGER
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Georg Philipp Telemann Op 134 [30:16]
rec. 5, 6 & 8 December 1951, DGG
Piano Concerto in F minor Op 114 [40:17]
rec. 29 & 30 April 1958, Electrola (Stereo)
Südwestfunk Orchester Baden Baden/Hans Rosbaud