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Wilhelm Georg BERGER (1929-1993)
Viola Concerto No.2 (1959) [29:09]
Symphony No.4 Op.30 (1964) [43:03]
Nils Mönkemeyer (viola)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Horia Andreescu
rec. Funkhaus Masurenallee, Grosser Saal Berlin, 30 November - 2 December 2009 and 28-29 June 2010
CPO 777 756-2 [72:26]

An impressive disc of music and a composer wholly unfamiliar to me. In this instance, ignorance proved to be very blissful. Not knowing the name of composer Wilhelm Georg Berger, let alone having heard a note of his music I decided the best approach was to listen to this disc with a totally 'innocent ear'. I find this to be a useful process in such circumstances as it helps me avoid the traps of leaping to preconceptions and expectations that even a biographical liner-note can induce. 

So, straight to the music. Important to say immediately; this is music that avoids overt emotionalism yet is clearly deeply felt. For that reason, amongst others, it gradually insinuates its way into your consciousness over time rather than relying on instant impact. These are two substantial works - a half hour concerto and a forty minute symphony written in two extended movements. There are common elements to the musical language of both works but in fact they are quite different in the musical and emotional terrain they occupy.
 
The disc opens with the Concerto which is the earlier work. Certain characteristics are immediately clear. Berger has written a concerto that emphasises the lyrical and reflective side of the instrument. This is serious if not sombre music - an impression reinforced by the fact that for the most part Berger favours steadier tempi; the opening movement is an Allegro moderato (with the emphasis firmly on the moderato), followed by a Larghetto. Even the finale - a tema con variazioni - allows for extended passages which avoid overt display and virtuosity.
 
Time for a little biographical detail - Berger was a viola player himself. Not, as one might expect given the Germanic nature of his name, from Austria or Germany but in Romania - Transylvania to be exact. He played with the Bucharest Philharmonic in the viola section from the age of 19. On the other hand, do not expect this to be some party-line-toeing faux-nationalist confection. My listening notes pointed out echoes of Hindemith and Reger but this is in fact music that resolutely refuses to be comfortably categorised. According to the liner-note writer - thankfully less verbose or obtuse than most contributors to CPO discs - his main interest was in the use of mathematical formulas in his music - the golden section, serial techniques and the Fibonacci sequence to name but three. Quite how this squared with the demands of “socialist realism” I cannot imagine - my guess is that this was music written more as a personal imperative rather than in any expectation of general or political popularity.
 
The soloist is Nils Mönkemeyer. He belongs to that elite of top rank viola soloists with which Classical Music seems to be currently awash. Long gone are the days when there were a small handful of specialist viola players of true virtuoso stature. I like very much the way Mönkemeyer allows the music to unfold naturally without ever forcing either his own tone or the natural heartbeat of the work. In this he is doubly helped by the sensitive and skilful accompaniment from the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Horia Andreescu as well as the excellent engineering and production of the CPO team. This places Mönkemeyer a step further back into the orchestral texture than is often the case but for this work, with its chamber-music-like interaction between soloist and orchestral group, this seems a wholly intelligent choice. Even in as fine a performance as this one palpably is I am not totally convinced by this work - the form - and predominance of slow and lyrical passages - leaves me slightly uneasy.
 
Certainly, next to the cogently powerfully Symphony No. 4 it feels like the lesser work. This symphony was composed in 1964 and was subtitled “The Tragic”. According to liner writer Jörg Sipermann, in it, Berger revisits all of the influences and compositional techniques that he held most dear: both movements are in sonata-form, his handling of musical motifs is reminiscent of Mahler, material is treated using serial and modal techniques, there are fugal passages and the golden section ratios are used to define overall structures. It is this fusion of “old” techniques (sonata form and fugue) with “new” (serial, golden section) that gives Berger’s music its striking individuality. However, here there is an extra emotional spark - the unexplained “tragic” of the title that galvanises the music with a life and energy that the lyrical concerto lacked. From the shivering opening with its gently tolling bells and tremulous strings - a searchingly beautiful extended woodwind solo just one of many similar solo passages spread across the orchestra - through bleakly marching music [track 4 - 3:00 onwards] and a spectral string fugato Berger shows himself to be a real master of orchestration. Even more impressive though is his maintenance of the musical tension across the two long spans of the work. There is a very strong sense of the music organically developing so one has no sense of the work being at all sectionalised so when the trombone-led climax is reached it feels both inevitable and cathartic. This comes around the 12:00 mark - oddly reminiscent of, but not at all like Sibelius in his Seventh Symphony.
 
I have no comparison to make, but instinctively I feel that Andreescu has the pacing of this work superbly conceived. Beautifully expressive players from his Berlin orchestra makes this an austerely sensual experience. After such extended passages of essentially slow music the explosion of energy in the symphony’s second movement (track 5 9:00) is both exciting and propulsively compelling. No Shostakovichian nightmare scherzo this simply an elemental outpouring that ceases - after some three minutes - almost as abruptly as it began. For the closing five minutes or so of the work the music unwinds through sinuous string and wind writing until a brass chorale [20:00] seems to give the work an uneasy solace. This impression is reinforced by a simple major triad in the trumpets which immediately side-slips away to a far less consoling end. This makes a strikingly moving conclusion to a substantial work. I have had this review lying incomplete in my work-tray for some time simply because I have struggled to articulate why this superficially conventional work impresses me as much as it does. As with all substantial art, the more one knows it the more it impresses.
 
Even by the oppressive standards of the Eastern Bloc Romania’s ruling party would surely not have tolerated such overt displays of personal emotion on a public platform. The liner makes no mention of first performances or the fact that this is No. 4 of 24 symphonies - according to the Romanian branch of Wikipedia. With that number I return to the thought that Berger wrote music for his own pleasure and need along the lines of that other well-known “self-symphonist” Havergal Brian. The calibre of the symphony makes one hope that CPO will be emboldened to dip further into the Berger Symphonic catalogue.
 
A very personal and powerfully individual symphony that deserves a far wider audience.
 
Nick Barnard
 




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