Stille der Nacht
Scherzo for Strings
Variations on a Theme of Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Michael Kraus (baritone)
Maya Beiser (cello)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in September 1994 in Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: October 2007
CD No: TOCCATA CLASSICS
Duration: 78 minutes
Julius Burger had a long life: he died in New York in 1995 aged 98. Burger was born in Vienna (as Bürger) and it will come as no surprise that the rise of the Nazis forced him, like so many others, to seek refuge elsewhere. Burger – composer, conductor, pianist and arranger – spent his last 60 years in the United States, his original compositions only coming to performance very late in his life when these recordings were made. Good to know that Burger was at these sessions; he would at least have known that some of his music was destined for a larger audience.
Two works for baritone and orchestra frame the CD’s contents. Both are from circa 1919 and both are astonishingly beautiful pieces: eloquent, deeply felt, and full of imagery. Admirers of Wagner, Mahler, Korngold and Berg will be enraptured by Burger’s glorious word-settings (“Stille der Nacht” to a text by Gottfried Keller, “Legende” by Christian Morgenstern). “Stille der Nacht” begins with a ‘lonely’ flute solo that immediately works its magic, the opening bars also peering into the very specific (and wonderful) world of Busoni’s (contemporaneous) “Doktor Faust” (especially its ‘Sarabande’). Both settings are vivid and imaginative, superbly orchestrated, and beautifully sung by Michael Kraus. Two real discoveries; enchanted and richly expressive.
But then everything here is inspired: begging the question as to how a composer of Burger’s undoubted quality and craft could be overlooked for so long – not least in America where Burger himself was active as a multi-talented musician (including at the Metropolitan Opera). Scherzo for Strings is a tightly organised yet expansive rhythmic treat – which admirers of Frank Bridge’s music might find some parallels with. And the Bach Variations (for Karl read Carl) – probably written in 1945 – bring a Schoenberg-like transformation of the innocent Theme, a series of deft commentaries of flighty imagination, every bit as good as Reger’s (a compliment!) and offering a full gamut of possibilities, all touched in with Burger’s distinct personality.
The Cello Concerto (1938) is expansive (31 minutes, although the annotation is awry with movement-timings here: they are approximately 10, 10 and 11). The first movement is marked Allegro, but begins slowly and pensively; lyrical music that speaks directly to the listener. The Allegro brings lucid musical thought, quite personal yet part of tradition and always engaging. The rapt slow movement is the concerto’s heart (dedicated a few years after composition by Burger to his mother “murdered on September 28 1942 in Auschwitz”) – a profound response to such events (even if composed beforehand) – and the finale, rather ingeniously, continues where the first movement left off, to complete a masterly work that really demands to be heard.
Waiting for over a decade for these first recordings to be released is a crying shame – it seems that as Sony BMG is credited that this is a project that got lost or was suppressed. It is then a real coup for Toccata Classics to be issuing this notable music. The comprehensive annotation, photographs, first-class sound (capturing ideally Burger’s luminous scoring) and the wholly excellent performances further ensure that this issue gets a ‘record of the year’ status. No question!