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Erik Then-Bergh (piano) - The complete Electrola and DGG recordings
rec. 1938-1958
APR 6021 [77:30 + 76:52]

Born in Hanover in 1916, Erik Then-Bergh had a solid career, firstly as a prominent soloist and then as a highly-respected teacher. His recorded legacy was slim and my last experience of hearing him was as part of Supraphon’s Karel Ančerl Edition (review) where the German pianist essayed an occasionally fallible but always highly characterful reading of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto.

In this twofer, which is temptingly released as two-for-one price-wise, APR restores his complete Electrola and DG recordings over the two-decade period of 1938-58, plus one Telefunken 78, the Beethoven Bagatelles.

It won’t matter to anyone but a chronology-pedant that the music isn’t presented in the order of recording. Thus, the set opens with his 1940 traversal of Handel’s Suite No.4 in E minor, a strong reading with an appropriately strong use of the pedal and blistering octave doubling when necessary. This fluent and warm approach is rewarded with a typically superior Electrola recording. His first 78 to be released was, in fact, the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, quite an undertaking for one’s shellac debut. From a rather sullen, withdrawn introduction he builds incrementally and very impressively offering a wholly different slant to that taken by Michelangeli, whose granitic imperturbability is not the German pianist’s way. He’s not quite totally accurate technically but what little is missing is hardly worth noting; the piano just about survives this heroic interpretation though the last note wavers. He essays Beethoven’s Op.101, anticipating the sequence of sonatas he was to record after the end of the war, and does so with a fine awareness of the music’s power, lyricism and, indeed, wit – a quality he finds in Brahms, by the way.

He recorded Schumann’s Second Sonata in September 1939. He plays this excellently, tonally distinguished and technically accomplished. He also demarcates its expressive character well. He’s not as kinetic as Mischa Levitzki in his 1933 HMV set, but he’s more level-headed than Percy Grainger’s 1927 Columbia – and Then-Bergh is more overtly expressive than either in the slow movement whilst remaining fully up to tempo in the devilish Scherzo. His Chopin Nocturne is relaxed and delicate and the two Silhoutten from Reger’s Op.53 set – he selected the second and sixth – are played evocatively and with great attention to detail and balance. He charts the sixth’s move from evocative reflection to drama with great subtlety.

I’m surprised that APR didn’t put these Reger recordings on the second disc where they could nestle with same composer’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Georg Phillip Telemann and the Piano Concerto thus forming an all-Reger enclave. Instead, oddly, they open with two of Beethoven’s Op.33 Bagatelles, which could easily have been programmed back on the first disc (see footnote). The first has a higher-than-usual ration of surface noise but is otherwise perfectly acceptable. The Variations are not separately tracked but you’ll probably want to listen straight through in any case, so vividly does Then-Bergh draw on those moments of Lisztian rhetoric, bravura fugal power, delicacy and charm. As he found variation 21 boring he simply omitted it in this recording. The Piano Concerto has the huge advantage of Hans Rosbaud’s conducting. The concerto is a knottier work than the significantly longer Violin Concerto but it pays rewards not least when its thickets are explored by musicians capable of exploring its moments of poetic grace as well as virtuosic flair. The later LP recording by Serkin, Ormandy and the Philadelphia was rather more vital, especially in the finale, with its passionate central panel, but this Baden-Baden reading is no less effective.

The audio work is a co-production between Obert-Thorn and Seth Winner in disc 1, whilst Obert-Thorn has dealt with disc two on his own. The results are impressive. There’s a delightful reminiscence of her studies with Then-Bergh by the Scottish pianist Elizabeth Hopkins and good notes on his life and work by Frank Latino. This fine salute was issued to mark the centenary of Then-Bergh’s birth.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank

(from Mike Spring, APR)
The possibly of making the second disc all Reger was considered but in the end Mark Obert-Thorn felt it was best to keep the complete Electrola 78s together on the first disc.
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
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



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