Tuesday, January 24, 2017

APR Restores Attention to an Almost Forgotten Pianist

This Friday Appian Publications & Recordings (APR) will release a CD of all the 78 RPM recordings that pianist Erik Then-Bergh made for Electrola and Deutsche Grammophon. The disc also has room for a stereophonic Electrola recording of Max Reger’s Opus 114 piano concerto in F minor with Hans Rosbaud conducting the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra based in Baden-Baden. As usual, Amazon.com has already created the Web page for this recording, from which it is possible to pre-order the release.

The advance material describes Then-Bergh as “almost forgotten today.” That claim is warranted by what, for better or worse, has become a standard for “cultural memory.” There is not (yet) a page for him on the English-language Wikipedia site. There is, however, a page for him on the German-language site; but it is a rather modest offering of three paragraphs. On the other hand he does not appear to be mentioned at all (certainly not in the index) in what used to be taken as a standard account of middlebrow knowledge, Harold C. Schoenberg’s The Great Pianists.

What caught my attention in that advance material, however, was the phrase “this favorite of Furtwangler [sic].” For better or worse, I confess to going into an almost Pavlovian salivation reflex in response to any reference to Wilhelm Furtwängler and am a proud owner of the 107-CD box Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Legacy. However, after a little bit of research, I was able to figure out at least one reason why Furtwängler had such a high opinion of Then-Bergh: He was one of the pianists to include Furtwängler’s piano concerto (entitled “Symphonic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in B minor”) in his repertoire! Indeed, Amazon even has a Web page for the recording that Then-Bergh made of this concerto with Rafael Kubelik conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. (The recording in that big box has Furtwängler conducting Edwin Fischer.)

Fortunately, Furtwängler’s interest was not the only feature to attract my attention. As a listener I am always interested in expanding my repertoire; and, where Max Reger is concerned, that repertoire has been almost entirely confined to his organ music. Thus Then-Bergh’s recording of Opus 114 was a “first contact” opportunity that I could not resist. The CD also includes the Opus 134 set of 23 variations and a fugue on a theme of Georg Philipp Telemann (although Variation 21 is missing), along with two of the seven short pieces that Reger collected under the title Silhouetten (silhouettes), his earlier Opus 53.

To be fair, Reger’s music is not to everyone’s liking. There is a thickness to his approach to voicing and counterpoint that fares better in the hands of an organist who knows how to make judicious assignments to the different keyboards and the stops they control. When all of those notes are crammed onto a piano keyboard, it is easy to wonder whether there might be too many of them; but we should remember that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was confronted with similar criticism. As I discovered when writing about Reger’s organ music, the mind behind the ear can gradually acclimate itself to his thick textures; and, if recordings have any virtue at all, it is their ability to allow one to repeat a listening experience several times in the interest of such acclimatization. Nevertheless, since Then-Bergh is the only pianist I have encountered (on recording or in performance) to play Reger’s piano music, I have to confess that I lack the experience to assess just how good a job he is doing.

Fortunately, this is not the case with the rest of the CD. The primary offering by Ludwig van Beethoven is the Opus 101 sonata in A major. At the other end of the pendulum swing, I have lost track of the number of recordings and performances of this sonata that I have experienced. Nevertheless, I was definitely drawn to this one, rather than feeling that it was “just another one.” Whether any of his tempo decisions involved the time constraints of the duration of a single 78 RPM side, there is an urgency to his performance that works to great positive effect in his interpretation of this sonata; and it is likely to be a recording that I shall be inclined to revisit. By way of contrast the CD also includes two of the seven Opus 33 bagatelles, making a clear case that Then-Bergh was aware of Beethoven’s capacity for wit.

On the other hand the Beethoven sonata is followed by Robert Schumann’s Opus 22 (second) sonata in G minor. This sonata abounds with full-out salvos of notes, usually delivered at maximum tempo (and then faster). Fortunately, Then-Bergh has a clear understanding of where the music itself resides within that overload of auditory stimuli. Indeed, his approach to interpreting this sonata may explain his ambitions to apply his skills to the thick textures of his Reger selections.

That vigorous energy is also present in abundance in his two “Baroque” selections, scare quotes because these are clearly nineteenth-century perceptions of George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach. In the latter case that perception is actually based on Ferruccio Busoni’s famous (or notorious, depending on personal tastes) arrangement of the chaconne that concludes the BWV 1004 solo violin partita. The Handel selection, on the other hand, is the fourth (in E minor) from a collection of eight keyboard suites published in 1720, sometimes known as “the eight great suites.” In this case Then-Bergh is following Handel’s “text,” rather than Busoni’s; and, if his touch and free play of dynamics follow the aesthetic conventions of the nineteenth century, there is a clarity in his ability to sort out the contrapuntal voices, which is right up there with the traits that I recently admired in Sviatoslav Richter’s approach to Handel.

Thus, if APR was out to make the case that Then-Bergh deserves to be better known than he currently is, particularly in the United States, than the recordings on this release offer up a generous supply of warrants.

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