Ernst NAUMANN (1832-1910)
String Trio in D major, Op. 12 (1883) [24:23]
Wilhelm BERGER (1861-1911)
String Trio in G minor, Op. 69 (1898) [28:11]
Dresdner Streichtrio (Prof. Jörg Faßmann (violin), Sebastian Herberg (viola), Michael Pfaender (cello))
rec. 6/8 September 2010 Bethanienkirche, Leipzig, Germany
QUERSTAND VKJK1020 [52:34]

Every so often I come across an exceptional album that does not seem to have been reviewed on MusicWeb-International. On the Querstand label, this is one such album released back in 2010 and played by the Dresdner Streichtrio. The album comprises two string trios by Ernst Naumann and Wilhelm Berge, both German composers, whom I had certainly not come across before. It seems both works are receiving their first recordings.

The Berger string trio feels slightly more substantial than the Naumann. To my ear, both works have a Schubertian sweetness and the elegance of Mozart with a natural instinct for melody. There is little in the way of the thrusting rhythmic expression and stormy emotional intensity of their antecedents: late Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. Whilst not plumbing any genuine emotional depths, these string trios remain highly attractive works, surely worthy of a place in the repertoire.

Founded in 1995, the Dresdner Streichtrio is composed of leading members of renowned German orchestras. Professor Jörg Faßmann, the Staatskapelle Dresden concertmaster, and Sebastian Herberg, its principal viola, join together with Michael Pfaender, the principal cello of the MDR Symphony Orchestra, Leipzig.

A friend of Schumann and Brahms, Ernst Naumann was an organist, conductor, composer, arranger, editor and musicologist. After music studies at Leipzig, he worked at the Dresden Court. From 1860 for the next fifty years he was Kapellmeister and organist in Jena, Thuringia. He became a music professor at the city university. Naumann is probably best known as the conductor of the première of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody with soloist Pauline Viardot in 1870 at Jena.

Naumann wrote a moderate amount of music, concentrating mainly on chamber music. Composed in 1883, the spirit of Vienna is never far away. With Naumann’s elegant writing, the opening movement Allegro imbues an aching tenderness that does remind me of Beethoven’s early string quartet op. 18/3 (as suggested by German musicologist Wilhelm Altmann). In the uplifting Scherzo with its march-like rhythms the vitality and precision employed is striking. Admirable in the poignant Lento molto espressivo is the way the players maintain such a lovely consistent melodic line of grace and beauty. The purposeful forward momentum of the Finale: Allegro assai ensures the movement feels alive with joy and spirit.

Wilhelm Berger was born in Boston, Massachusetts and taken back to Bremen by his German parents within the next year. In Berlin he studied music at the Royal Conservatory and later taught at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory, combining the role with chief conductorship of the Berlin Musical Society. Later in his career he moved to Thuringia where he worked as chief conductor at the court orchestra of Georg II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. From his debut on the concert platform at the age of only fourteen, he was active as a concert pianist.

Berger wrote over a hundred works, including the String Trio in G minor played here, a product of his time in Berlin. Regarded as a “masterpiece” by Wilhelm Altmann, unquestionably the G minor score has a greater intensity and more emotional depth than Naumann’s string trio. The opening movement, an attractive Idyll marked Lebhaft, is cheerfully buoyant but there is a conspicuously contrasting middle section of a serious, more introspective disposition. Gloriously crafted second movement Etwas belebt has a theme with a slight march-like quality and set of well contrasted variations. Redolent of a Tarantella, the marvellous Scherzo feels carefree and uplifting. It is played here with considerable vivacity whilst remaining elegant throughout. The longest movement, the Finale lasting over ten minutes in this performance, has two distinct sections. Prominent in the introduction is the meltingly attractive cantilena for viola, which revisits a theme from the opening movement. Bursting into life at point 4:24 (track 8) are the jaunty and diverting folk-infused rhythms that take centre stage.

These persuasive accounts of the string trios contain some of the finest chamber music playing I have encountered on record. From the first note to the last, the Dresdner Streichtrio display remarkable musicianship in performances that are superbly paced and well shaped, with impeccable intonation and a glorious warm tone. They are recorded in the responsive acoustic of Bethanienkirche, Leipzig. The engineers add to the success of the recording by providing warm, clear sound and a satisfying balance. The accompanying booklet contains a helpful essay by Klaus-Jürgen Kamprad and some biographical information about each player.

These are exemplary, unaffected performances by the Dresdner Streichtrio of two rarely heard yet eminently attractive string trios by Naumann and Berger. They benefit from impeccable playing and beautifully recorded sound. Chamber music lovers will be in their element with this Querstand album, excellent in every way.

Michael Cookson

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