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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Diabelli Variations (1819-23) [46:32]
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Telemann Variations (1914) [30:17]
Paul Baumgartner (piano: Beethoven)
Erik Then-Bergh (piano: Reger)
rec. Beethovensaal, Hamburg, December 5, 6 & 8, 1951 (Reger); February 9-12, 1952 (Beethoven)
ELOQUENCE 482 5880 [76:49]

Recently, it was interesting to hear Mikhail Faerman’s only DG recording reissued on DG Eloquence (Brahms Paganini Variations and Prokofiev Sonata No. 6 on 482 5876). Here are two more artists who only stepped into the hallowed studios of DGG once each.

Swiss-born pianist Paul Baumgartner (1903-1976) has a lineage that can be traced back to Leschetzky via his teacher Walter Braunfels in Munich. He was also taught by the great Eduard Erdmann in Cologne. Baumgartner was to continue the line, teaching Alfred Brendel. His Diabelli Variations recording, is a terrific performance, one of great intellectual merit as well as considered playing. There is play here, too, in that gruff late Beethoven way (Variation 21), and sprightliness (the very next variation). The recording is bright, an aspect that foregrounds Baumgartner’s finger clarity and sparing way with the sustaining pedal. There is a freshness to the performance, too, as in the scurrying 25th variation, so evenly delivered here. Where Innigkeit is required, Baumgartner finds that interior space well (the great Largo molto espressivo Variation 31).

Most will have their favoured Diabellis – Brendel, perhaps, or a more historical approach via Brautigam on BIS. Baumgartner’s reading deserves to be heard. The piano sound might not be as upholstered as some, but the spirit of the playing survives in this excellent transfer.

One hopes to hear more Paul Baumgartner – the performance of Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasia (HMV C C4789-91) from February 1948, for example, is eminently worth resurrecting, always musical, leaner than most texturally and with a slow movement of Brendel-like depths.

The Telemann set takes as its starting point the last movement of the Suite in B flat, TWV55:81. It is marked “Tempo di minuetto” in Reger’s score, but that of course is a movable feast. Erik Then-Bergh takes his time (contrast, for example, the rather brisker performance by Musica Antiqua under Pieter-Jan Belder on Brilliant Classics of the original). All perfectly logical, of course: Reger (and Then-Bergh) is presenting the potentialities of the theme whereas in the Suite it is the seventh movement and takes on a far more celebrational function on its home turf.

Then-Bergh’s performance is exemplary. Aged 35 at the time of recording, Then-Bergh’s career was to be forever overcast by his presence in Nazi Germany (aged 24 he received the National Music Prize; the ceremony was attended by Goebbels). He remains one of the many jewels of that period still to be fully appreciated. Then-Bergh’s negotiation of the slower variations is mesmeric (Variations 10 and 11, both marked “Quasi adagio), while his quicksilver negotiation of Variation 13, followed by the trill-encrusted Variation 14, reveals another side of his playing. Interestingly, he omits Variation 21 (allegedly he confided in a pupil he found it “boring”); but this remains a superb performance of Reger’s wonderful, under-rated score. The light touch contained in the final Fugue is most appealing: Reger at his most elfin.

Although both the Beethoven and the Reger on this disc share the same producers and engineers (the Beethoven with the addition of a second producer), the sound of the Telemann is preferable, less brittle.

The Reger appears again in the APR two-disc set dedicated to Then-Burgh (see reviews by Jonathan Woolf and Stephen Greenbank) where the variations are not separately tracked (they are in the Eloquence issue). Nevertheless, the APR would be the logical next step to investigate this fascinating pianist’s legacy.

Recommended wholeheartedly. These explorations/reminders of the byways of the recorded history of the piano are just the ticket.

Colin Clarke



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