Tuesday 28 July 2015

Inspired by Bach

Inspired by Bach - Julius Berger - Nimbus Alliance
Johannes Brahms, Max Reger, Johann Sebastian Bach, Zoltan Kodaly, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes X. Schachter, Albrecht Gursching; Julius Berger, Oliver Kern; Nimbus Alliance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 13 2015
Star rating: 4.0

A voyage round Brahms' and Reger's cello sonatas

This fascinating two-disc set from the distinguished cellist Julius Berger and pianist Oliver Kern on Nimbus Alliance might be termed a pair of voyages. The first around Brahms’ Cello Sonata in E minor Op. 38 and the second around Max Reger’s Cello Sonata in A minor Op. 116. On both discs Julius Berger teases out the various Bachian influences in the works and elucidates them by including Kodaly’s arrangements of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, transcriptions of Bach, a new pieces by Johannes X Schachtner and as well as the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in A minor Op. 69.

Julius Berger
Julius Berger
Having sung a lot of Brahms’ unaccompanied sacred music, I was aware how influenced Brahms was by Bach and on the first disc of this set Julius Berger demonstrates all of the Bachian references in Brahms’s cello sonata. Does this matter, is it just a dry musicological exercise? Not a bit, in his illuminating article Julius Berger talks about the intellectual engagement with the sonata leading to decisions about character and tempo.

The main theme of the Brahms sonata’s first movement is taken from Contrapunctus IV from Bach’s The Art of Fugue with the fugal finale of the sonata using a theme from Contrapunctus XIII. The theme from Contrapunctus IV re-occurs in the fugue from Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in E Flat minor BWV 853, from the Well-Tempered Clavier which was in fact arranged by Zoltan Kodaly for cello and piano in 1951 (and dedicated to Casals).

Julius Berger and Oliver Kern open their recital with the Kodaly arrangement, a rather affecting piece which has hints of its 20th century origins in the sound world. The theme also re-appears in Bach’s organ version of the hymn Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir BWV 686 and Berger also plays a new piece based on this, specially written for him. Johannes X. Schachtner’s Relief No. 3 – ‘Ich schrei aus tiefer Notfreely based on BWV 686, is a thoughtful, at times austere piece which gives a number of treatments to the Bach theme. The theme from Bach’s Choral prelude ‘Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden’ BWV 727 also occurs in the sonata, and here Julius Berger gives us a considered performance of his transcription for cello and piano.

Brahms originally wrote the sonata in four movements, but only published a three movement version. It is generally agreed that the slow movement of the second Cello Sonata Op. 99 was originally designed for the first sonata. Here Julius Berger plays a re-construction which places the slow movement in its presumed original place. He gives a thoughtful, rather interior performance of the opening Allegro non troppo playing with fine-grained singing tone. This is not a big-boned account of the work, instead there is an elegant consideration and a sense of a steady unfolding. The Adagio affetuoso has a similar mood, being highly reflective. Again Julius Berger provides a nice singing tone, but with a sense of strength. We get a gravely elegant Allegretto which is rather stately, with a flowing trio. The final Allegro is virile, with some strong textures and vibrant playing. On the whole this is a considered view of the sonata and you feel the steadiness and lack of romantic push arise from Julius Berger’s consideration of the Bach links.

There are other links too. Brahms’ childhood sweetheart, Agathe von Siebold gets a mention via the cipher AGAHE (A-G-A-B natural – E) and the song Verstohlen geht der Mond was one of her favourites and evidently Brahms used to sing it to her. Here we hear it in an evocative transcription by Albrecht Gursching. Finally the voyage takes us to a transcription from Bach’s Actus Tragicus.

I would not want to be without more romantically impulsive versions of Brahms sonata, but Julius Berger and Oliver Kern make a clear case for their fine-grained performance which certainly does allow space for all the Bachian echoes to develop.

If Max Reger's Cello Sonata in A is less well known, it certainly benefit from the illumination which Julius Berger's approach sheds on it. Max Reger is quoted as saying that 'I owe Joh. Seb. Bach every thin, everything' but the language of the sonata is Max Reger's own though with JSB woven through.

Julius Berger and Oliver Kern start the second disc with Zoltan Kodaly's Bach arrangements, Three Choral Preludes - Ach was it doch unser leben BWV 743, Vater unser in Himmelreich BWV 762, Christus der uns selig Macht BWV 747. Julius Berger includes them not because they reference Max Reger's sonata but because the emotional arc through the three could have easily come from Reger. In fact they were dedicated to Reger's friend Karl Straube. The first two present us with a soulful singing cello line in arrangements which seem more Zoltan Kodaly than JSB. The final one is vigorous and more obviously Bachian. Bachian references in Reger's sonata include the B-A-C-H motto, as well as BWV 727 which Julius Berger included on the first disc, another fascinating link.

But there was another influence too, that of Ludwig van Beethoven. Berger feels that Beethoven's Sonata No. 3 op.69 was also a model for Max Reger. So  we get the opening movement but in the version from Beethoven' autograph, in which during the development it is the cello which plays a theme taken from Bach's St John Passion (the alto aria, 'It is finished'). Julius Beger's performance of the Beethoven brings out the highly structural sense of the piece (more Bachian influences) with a lively texture combined with rather sober intent and some nicely perky details. We follow this with a transcription of the original aria from Bach's St John Passion which Julius Berger plays in a soulfully expressive fashion.

Max Reger's sonata could not but be big romantic work. The generous opening Allegro moderato has strenuous elements but also long endless phrases in a finely considered performance. The second movement Presto is lively, but still remarkably austere. In the low movement we get Max Reger's endless lines in an intensely powerful and serious account from Julius Berger and Oliver Kern. Finally the intense but lively fugal Allegretto con grazia. This fine performance brings out the sober, sombre intelligence behind the sonata.

Finally Max Reger's Aria Op. 103a which uses the bass line from Bach's famous air to create a beautiful synthesis.

Cellist Julius Berger has a career spanning 40 yeas so his performance of Brahms' and Max Regers' cello sonatas, ably partnered by Oliver Kern, could not help but be powerful testaments. But the programme on this disc, combined with Julius Berger's own CD booklet essay, serves to offer striking insight into the cellist's thinking. You certainly will not listen to Brahms' Cello Sonata in the same way again.

JS Bach (1685-1750)/Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967) - Preludium and Fugue in D minor (1951)
Johannes X Schachtner (born 1985) - Relief No. 3 - 'Ich schrei auf tiefer Not' frei nach dem Praludium BWV 686 von Johann Sebastian Bach (2013)
JS Bach (1685-1750) - Choral prelude 'Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden' after BWV 727
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - Sonata in E minor op. 38 (1862-1865)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)/Albrecht Gursching (born 1934) - Variationen nach einem altdeutschen Minnelied 'Verstohlen geht der Mond auf' (2013)
JS Bach (1685-1750) - Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit nach BWV 106
JS Bach (1685-1750)/Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967) - Three Choralpreludes (1924)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) - Allegro ma non tanto, Sonata in A major op.69 (1808)
JS Bach (1685-1750) - Es is vollbracht, St John Passion BWV 245
Max Reger (1873-1916) - Sonata in E minor, Op. 116 (1910)
Max Reger (1873-1916) - Aria op. 103a (1908)
Julius Berger (cello)
Oliver Kern (piano)
Recorded 21-22 March, 18 October 2013, 4-5 April 2015,, concert hall of the University of Augsburg
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6302 2CD's [60.54,70.19]

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