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Hermann Berens: The Three String Trios

Berens / Trio Zilliacus Persson Raitinen
Release Date: 04/08/2008 
Label:  Intim Musik   Catalog #: 107   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Hermann Berens
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Zilliacus Persson Raitinen
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 22 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BERENS String Trios: No. 1 in D; No. 2 in c; No. 3 in F Tr ZillacusPerssonRaitinen INTIM 107 (82:30)

You may remember the story about an elderly Franz Berwald receiving in 1867 the professorship of composition at the Stockholm Conservatory, thanks to a vote by the board of the Royal Musical Academy. Then, three days later, the Conservatory’s own board reversed the decision, on the grounds that Berwald lacked teaching experience, and gave the post to another musician. Then Prince Oscar, later Oscar II, stepped Read more in, the winning candidate withdrew, and Berwald finally received his first and only coveted position in the Swedish musical establishment.

That other musician was Hermann Berens (1826–1880). He was in several respects the opposite of Berwald. A German émigré, rather than a native Swede, he was friendly and extroverted, at least during his early years, rather than moody and caustic. His three piano trios were all written in the summer of 1871, four years after stepping aside to accommodate the royal pleasure. Here, too, Berwald and Berens could not be more different, for where the former is largely an original, save for what little he owed Berlioz and Méhul, the latter is content to write in a language that based much of its vocabulary on Spohr. Berens did so not as a conservative, however, but as an adopted member of a culture for whom that style was yet fresh and full of unexplored opportunities.

Thematically and structurally, all three works are interesting. The composer built his themes out of shorter melodic and rhythmic motifs in the manner of the late Viennese Classical period. This allowed him to create memorable material that could be freely developed. One example is the natural-sounding way that contrapuntal lines weave throughout the minuet to the Trio No. 2. (Yes, it still puts the old dance form in third place, albeit with a wink.) A second example is the leisurely introduction to the Third Trio’s first movement, combining successive short passages of recitative, lyrical melody, and counterpoint. Subtly transformed, it provides both of the movement’s main themes, but with an impression of unending inventiveness.

Berens was also an enthusiastic chamber musician, whose love of intimate music-making informs his approach to these works. There’s a passage in the First Trio’s finale, for example, that throws fast, satirically florid figurations at each musician in turn—the kind of joke only a performing insider would share, both with fellow performers and their small but knowledgeable audience. Solos are varied sufficiently to spotlight all three instruments, and the composer clearly took pains to make accompaniments as interesting as he could.

We know that the three works were published shortly in Hamburg after their creation. The Trio No. 3 was performed in Stockholm in the mid and late 1870s by some of the Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra’s finest musicians. It was received very well by the press of the day, but subsequently ignored and forgotten. Technically, the trios were far above the sort of fare required for home use in middle-class Swedish culture at the time, and an absence of performances abroad meant that professional ensembles were probably unaware of the pieces. Their second publication didn’t occur until 1977. I can locate no previous recordings of the works.

The ZillacusPerssonRaitinen String Trio—that’s exactly how it’s written—consists of violinist Cecilia Zillacus, violist Johanna Persson, and cellist Kati Raitinen. They reveal a deep and passionate commitment to these trios, and have obviously spent a lot of time in preparation. Technically, they’re very good, if not quite up to the challenge mentioned in the First Trio’s finale. Still, they don’t lessen the pace and trade excitement or the composer’s tempo for greater comfort; and the number of less-than-immaculate notes that result are few enough to satisfy most tastes, including (obviously) my own. I also commend their rhythmic flexibility and their mastery of nuance. The CD provides good if discursive notes and excellent sound. I look forward to hearing them again in further excellent chamber music from Sweden that has as much to offer as these fine trios by Berens.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

String Trio in D major, Op. 85/1 by Hermann Berens
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Zilliacus Persson Raitinen
Date of Recording: 02/2006 
Venue:  Swedish Radio, Stockholm, Sweden 
Length: 25 Minutes 49 Secs. 
String Trio in C minor, Op. 85/2 by Hermann Berens
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Zilliacus Persson Raitinen
Period: Romantic 
Date of Recording: 02/2006 
Venue:  Swedish Radio, Stockholm, Sweden 
Length: 23 Minutes 39 Secs. 
String Trio in F major, Op. 85/3 by Hermann Berens
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Zilliacus Persson Raitinen
Date of Recording: 05/01/2006 
Venue:  Swedish Radio, Stockholm, Sweden 
Length: 31 Minutes 37 Secs. 

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