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Roman BERGER (b. 1930)
Pathétique, for cello and piano (2006) [12:06]
Piano Sonata No. 3 'da camera' (1971) [23:06]
Allegro frenetico con reminiscenza, for cello (2006) [13:13]
Impromptu, for clarinet (2013) [7:54]
Epilogue (Omaggio a L. v. B.), for piano, cello and clarinet (2010) [21:55]
Berger Trio (Ladislav Fanzowitz (piano), Ján Slávik (cello), Branislav Dugovič (clarinet))
rec. 2013, Empire Theatre, Hlohovec, Slovakia
NAXOS 8.573406 [78:33]

The Slovakian artist Roman Berger is a venerable and highly respected composer as well as an important music theoretician and one-time musical administrator. He was a tireless champion of the profession, acting as Secretary of the Composers’ Section of the Union of Slovak Composers during the political struggles of the last century in Eastern Europe, until dismissed for being “anti-Soviet”. His generally modernist but far from inaccessible compositions have won prestigious awards since at least the 1980’s and yet have had little presence in the record catalogues. This is, I believe, the first time anything of his has been reviewed on this website, and all of these works are receiving their première recording.

Some of his fellow musicians clearly hold Roman Berger in high esteem, not least those heard on this disc, who took his name to form The Berger Trio. Most of these works are dedicated to the members of this leading Slovak ensemble, whose close association with these pieces make them the ideal team for the programme. However this disc offers a more varied set of pieces, not least in instrumentation, than the word ‘Trio’ suggests. The largest work on the disc is the four-movement Third Piano Sonata, while the Impromptu is for solo clarinet and the Allegro frenetico con reminiscenza is for solo cello. Only the final work on the disc is for clarinet trio. Yet there is coherence within this variety.

The disc opens with a piece for cello and piano called “Pathétique” (referring it seems to Beethoven, not Tchaikovsky), and does indeed deploy some very Beethovenian gestures, not least the three shorts and a long rhythm we associate with the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The short tense portentous motifs yield to more ethereal and plaintive music, exquisitely played. The virtuoso cello part is impressively despatched, brilliantly secure in the searing writing in the high register. It makes a fine opening, and should be heard by anyone, players especially, involved with the cello music of this century.

The Third Piano Sonata’s first movement is marked andante con tristezza, and opens with an improvisatory feeling, until clearer motivic cells take shape. It is music of hesitation, reluctant to commit to a forward impetus until the ensuing allegro deciso. The following brief veloce again has not as much continuous velocity as the marking suggests, and spends much of its course in the high register, with a slow and enigmatic middle section. The fourth movement adagio inquieto is much the longest, longer than the other three put together. That ‘inquieto’ marking might almost be translated as “unsettled” or “with disquiet”. The sonata is clearly not one to yield all its secrets at once, but even a couple of hearings suggest it would be worth persevering.

The “Allegro frenetico con reminiscenza” is an extension of a solo cello passage derived from a song cycle, as the composer explains in his note. It is dramatic and arresting, and sounds very taxing to play. Perhaps at more than thirteen minutes there is not quite enough variety to sustain interest throughout, but it hard to imagine it played with more skill and commitment. The “Impromptu” is for solo clarinet, and seems to begin with Shostakovich’s ‘D-S-C-H’ signature motif, or at least the same melodic shape. But any extended solo clarinet piece also tends to recall the equivalent movement in Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the end of time’, and this has something of the same timeless quality.

In the “Epilogue (Omaggio a L.v.B)”, the other substantial work on the programme, with its subtitle in homage to Beethoven, we finally get all three members of the trio, and perhaps the finest work on the disc. The reference is to the introduction to L.v.B’s “Pathétique” sonata, which is quoted at the outset and forms a link to the title of Berger’s own “Pathétique” which began the disc. Like that work, it is associated with the death of his wife, and is as touchingly elegiac as we might expect. It sounds a haunted work, and is here hauntingly played by its dedicatees, the Berger Trio. This is another excellently recorded Naxos disc bringing very fine music to the wider attention it deserves.

Roy Westbrook



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