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Wilhelm BERGER (1861-1911)
Sonate für Klavier, Op. 76 [35:49]
Variationen und Fuge über ein Eigenes Thema für Klavier, Op. 91 [28:15]
Mitsuko Saruwatari (piano)
rec. 2017, Jurriaanse Zaal, De Doelen, Rotterdam
ETCETERA KTC1599 [64:04]

Wilhelm Reinhard Berger is barely remembered today, something reflected in the world première recording attribution to these significant works. Berger was born and grew up in Bremen, and he was something of a child prodigy both as a pianist and a composer. His distinguished career included professorships, a post as chief conductor of the Berlin Musikalischen Gesellschaft, and publication and wide appreciation of his prolific compositional work during his lifetime.

Mitsuko Saruwatari’s excellent booklet notes provide plenty of background and insight into Berger’s life and work, and the pieces recorded here. She describes him as “a unique representative of German late Romanticism”, a stylistic position confirmed by the impressive first movement of the Piano Sonata Op. 76. This is a movement worthy of Brahms, but not one you would confuse as being by that composer. Berger’s pianistic and compositional technique are both being flexed to the full, with a confidently heroic opening theme contrasted with soft lyricism in a second theme that seems to portray domestic harmony while our armour-clad main character is out slaying dragons. This is music with a satisfying honesty and a compelling character that makes you want to hear it again and again.

The Adagio second movement is a theme and variations, the song-like opening combining wistful yearning with a certain aristocratic poise. The theme has enough harmonic content to support the four following variations with moods ranging from an enigmatic march that has the spirit of Brahms at its shoulder, via torrid drama and “a consoling angelic chorus”, to resolution in the coda’s apotheosis. Variations also emerge from the rondo form of the third and final movement, which has a playful and “springlike” character at its outset. This sets the scene for darker dramas further along, the narrative character of this entire sonata remaining strong from the drama of its start to the quiet restraint of its finish – it could almost be the instrumental version of an entire opera.

The Variationen und Fuge über ein Eigenes Thema für Klavier, Op. 91 counts as “one of the central works of Berger’s output.” There were hints of his skill in contrapuntal writing in the Sonata, but the forty-two variations given to the passacaglia-like theme and its weighty concluding fugue stretch this and his pianistic prowess to the utmost. That is not to say that this is turgidly academic in any way, as there are plenty of gently lyrical and translucent textures to go along with powerful climaxes to transport us beyond considerations of technique. Variation form has the potential to be somewhat tedious, but there is a fascination to this work that keeps us on the edge of our seats and wondering ‘what will he do next?’ rather than a weary ‘when will it stop…’ The spark of inventiveness is so strong that we’re carried along buoyantly, and while there are no real ‘hit’ moments as have been extracted from comparable works by Brahms and Rachmaninov this particular opus number has to my mind a forward-looking feel while retaining its Romantic idiom. There are some juicy harmonic stresses and striking dissonances – have a listen at 9:19 for instance – and while Berger doesn’t hide the joins between his variations there is an overarching structure which sees everything hang together quite neatly for such a large-scale work. A Wagnerian climax is reached before the entry of the final fugue, a curtain raising on the figure of Bach busily catching up on the new style with his trusty old form. This is a fugue with a grand sweep, but also with an intense intricacy that is reinforced by a central dip in dynamic, allowing the musical material to regroup and develop into a final “grandiose culmination.”

Nicely designed and presented by the Etcetera label, this is all superbly performed by the Tokyo-born but Amsterdam-based Mitsuko Saruwatari. The Jurriaanse Zaal in Rotterdam’s Doelen building is perfectly suited for the scale of these works, with spacious resonance but by no means swampy in terms of the acoustic. The perfect balance of the recording is in the skilled hands of Daan van Aalst, whose own Navis Classics label also has some sublime piano solo recordings listed, and credit should also be given to piano technician Emiel Reinhoudt for setting up the Steinway D instrument to perfection. If you are an enthusiast for Romantic piano music and seek new territory to explore, then you owe it to yourself to find out about Wilhelm Berger.

Dominy Clements

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