Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Trio in D.
String Trio in g
Dresden Str Trio
QUERSTAND 1020 (52: 34)
In a review not long ago, I found myself musing over how neglected the string trio had been by 19th-century composers—the Cinderella of chamber-music genres, I seem to recall saying. Haydn’s 50-plus string trios don’t factor into the count because they’re about evenly divided between works for two violins and cello and for baryton, viola, and cello—i.e., not the
standard string trio complement of violin, viola, and cello. Nor do the great E?-Major Divertimento by Mozart (a string trio by another name), or Beethoven’s five numbered contributions (one of them designated Serenade) count either because they were all written before the turn of the century.
So, for 19th-century examples, we’re left with two string trios by Schubert, one of them uncompleted; two by Brahms impersonator Heinrich Herzogenberg; a drop-dead gorgeous 1898 Trio in C Minor by Carl Reinecke; and two by Sibelius, the early 1889 String Trio in A Major (which he called a Suite and revised in 1912) and the later 1894 String Trio in G Minor.
I’m sure there are a few others not accounted for in this short list, but missing from the scene are the major chamber-music composers of the Romantic period. There are no string trios I know of by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, or Dvo?ák (his Terzetto doesn’t count because it’s scored for two violins and viola). But even if not among the big billboard names, here we have two new additions on record to the 19th-century string trio literature—the album says
(first-time recordings)—one by Ernst Naumann (1832–1910) and the other by Wilhelm Berger (1861–1911).
The only Naumann who shows up in the
Archive is 18th-century composer Johann Gottlieb Naumann (1740–1801). Almost no useful information turns up on a Google search for
Naumann, (Karl) Ernst, but we learn from Klaus-Jürgen Kamprad’s program note that he was the grandson of Johann Gottlieb and that as a young boy in Leipzig he would have been exposed to the music-making of Mendelssohn, Gade, Moritz Hauptmann, and Ferdinand David. After studying organ and composition at Mendelssohn’s recently opened conservatory in the city, Naumann continued his studies in Dresden and then took up posts as organist and conductor in Jena in 1860. One might expect from his dates, which make him an extremely close contemporary of Brahms, that Naumann would have known Brahms, or at least of him, and that his 1883 String Trio in D Major would be in a more or less Brahmsian cast. But the evidence that speaks from the pages of Naumann’s score say “not guilty as charged.”
This is mostly sweet and gentle music, suffused with the harmonious tranquility one hears in the slow movements of Mendelssohn’s string quartets. The Lento molto espressivo is Mendelssohn singing from his place on wings of song more than three decades after he went there. In the fast-paced outer movements, there is none of Mendelssohn’s turbulence or lyrical grace—the concluding Allegro assai sounds like the music to
The Farmer in the Dell
—and the Scherzo lumbers along with an oafish clumsiness that is more spawn of Grieg’s warty trolls than kin to Mendelssohn’s elves. Little wonder then, I suppose, that Naumann’s trio wasn’t published until 1996 and that according to Kamprad “his compositional work is limited.” That, I think, can be taken to mean more than just meager in quantity.
Wilhelm Berger is hardly much better known than Naumann. Don’t be misled by the several entries under Berger in the
Archive; they are for a number of different composers that all got lumped together under a generic “Berger” heading without benefit of a first name or initial. Only one, as far as I can tell, is for Wilhelm Berger, and that is for a Hall of Fame review of a recording containing Wilhelm’s Serenade, op. 102, submitted by Michael Carter in 28:3. The opus number tells us, however, that unlike Naumann, Wilhelm Berger amassed a reasonably sized catalog of works.
Compared to Naumann, Berger was quite short-lived, dying at 49 following stomach surgery. He was German by birthright but born in Boston where his father worked as a music shopkeeper. But the young Wilhelm would not remain in America. At 17 he returned to his ancestral home where we find him enrolled at the Royal Conservatory in Berlin, studying counterpoint under Friedrich Kiel. The Brahms nexus that was expected but didn’t pan out with Naumann is more in evidence with Berger, though in ways that may not be immediately obvious. In other words, you wouldn’t mistake Berger’s String Trio for a work by Brahms, as you might a similar piece by Herzogenberg.
Brahms was already dead when Berger wrote his trio in 1898 and its musical vocabulary is more chromatic and freely associative in its treatment of harmony and tonality than is Brahms’s, even in the late works. Berger’s approach to melody also seems somewhat haphazard, as in wandering about without direction, and his sense of rhythm feels like it’s lacking a vital pulse. Overall, the music gives the surface impression of being rather disorganized and not particularly on point. It has been noted that Berger’s style of writing anticipates that of Max Reger, who succeeded Berger to the Kapellmeister post in Meiningen.
As one of the composers associated with the circle of the “Berlin Academics,” Berger cultivated a mastery of counterpoint and fugue; while superficially his music doesn’t really sound very much like Brahms’s, it shares some of the older master’s manners of arching romantic gestures and dense contrapuntal textures. Almost the entirety of Berger’s String Trio seems to find expression in fugal episodes, the third movement, a Scherzo marked
, being a quite catchy fugue from beginning to end.
I have to admit that on first hearing I didn’t much care for Berger’s trio, but it grew on me with repeated listening. The Dresden String Trio—Jörg Fassmann, violin; Sebastian Herberg, viola; and Michael Pfaender, cello—makes lovely sounds on this fine recording. The three musicians, all members of the Saxony State Orchestra, founded the ensemble in 1995. Two of their recordings—Bach’s
in Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s string trio arrangement and a disc of Mozart’s and Schubert’s string trios—were reviewed in these pages by Burton Rothleder. He didn’t seem to care much for either one of them, but then that’s repertoire with many recorded versions to choose from.
Here there is no choice, and I’d be surprised to see another recording of Naumann’s and Berger’s trios anytime soon. The Dresden players, in my opinion, do quite well by these two scores, and I’m not in the least bit hesitant to recommend this release to anyone interested in sampling a couple of newly added recorded examples of the very limited 19th-century string trio repertoire from the fringes of the late German-Romantic period.
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