OEHMS CLASSICS - Debut-CD Clemens Berg

Clemens Berg on this Recording

Frédéric Chopin. This is the composer I naturally begin my debut CD with – how could it be any other way! No one can escape the fascination of this personality: his fragile poetry, his bold sound and his masterful perfection at the piano. Of the many famous 19th century composers, he was the only one to almost exclusively dedicate himself to writing for his instrument. But in addition to his famed and often noted qualities, what I wholly admire is something else: his melancholy. It is just as uncompromising as Bach’s strict polyphony or Beethoven’s heroism. There is nothing contrived about it; it originates from the depths of his soul. Is melancholy accepted in society? Who could frankly say “I am sad”, without being faced by collective pity – or even derision? I am in awe of Chopin because of the true greatness that speaks to us through his uncompromising honesty.

My CD begins with the great Ballade No. 4 in F Minor. The piece starts with a simple theme in C Major. Nothing – so it seems – could cloud this idyll. But just as C Major, the dominant, must resolve into the tonic with ironclad determination, the actual main theme in F Minor must follow. The plaintive character of this melody determines the entire spirit of the Ballade; the only contrast is a sweet, gently swaying theme in B-flat Major. After the thematic exposition, many images are painted in the free development: some portentously mystic, some gracefully elegant, some joyfully rebellious. The climax is the surprising – and parenthetically interjected – return of the simple first theme in the wonderfully distant key of A Major. The story becomes increasingly agitated in the recapitulation. The main theme now seems already rather distressed, with its fast runs and frequent rubato, while the third theme constantly intensifies and finally soars to a triumphant D-sharp Major at the end. Here, now, follow the entire tragic consequences of this Ballade: after a forced modulation to the F Minor tonic, the music races along with unusually brusk and brutal chords that violently announce the end of the piece. It seems as though the entire work is running towards this painful funeral march. One sees comparisons with Chopin’s own life – the composer died after a long, severe illness at the age of 39. After a G.P., we hear the chimes of a bell that seem to come from heaven (in C Major, as at the beginning!), but which are hardly capable of providing solace. Finally, the work ends with a frenetic F Minor coda, full of – it can’t be described any other way – chaotic and frenzied desperation.

In contrast to the great Ballade, Chopin’s sadness reveals itself in the Nocturnes in the reverse form. The beginning of the Nocturne op. 48, No 1, for example, expresses simple melancholy. C Minor governs the musical events for 24 bars until a new, chorale-like theme in C Major suddenly appears in the middle section. First held exceptionally quiet, it gradually develops triumphant power. The return of the main theme has an all the more frightening effect; it is now twice as fast as at the beginning and sounds fearfully distorted. After a last despairing escalation, the Nocturne ends with inconceivably lonely, restrained C Minor chords. Without a doubt, the triumphant middle section holds a vision of power and happiness, but this is thwarted in and by the night. It is not real, but only a short dream. Only a quiet, nightly sadness remains.

The second Nocturne seems almost sadder to me. If one could say that the previous piece does rebel to an extent, the second seems to be without resistance, without animation, only exhaustion. The descending melodic lines seem to go on forever. The slow tempo and the many piano interjections and ritardandi of the D-sharp Major middle section – if fast, it could even be a scherzo – gives this part a powerless and oddly apathetic feel. The only real climax returns to F-sharp Minor via an amazing deceptive cadence. The recapitulation surprises with new variants and leads after many chains of trills to the conclusion in F-sharp Major that ends the Nocturne with sweet weariness. It is thus not the powerful vision and plaintive resistance of the first Nocturne that leads to a close in a major key, but the complete surrender of the second. This is Chopin’s honest confession of faith, which must earn our esteem.

The second part of my CD is dedicated to works of the modern. Alban Berg’s Sonata op. 1 connects the two epochs; one could call this elegiac work the greatest possible intensification of the romantic will to expression. Simultaneously, however, its seeming atonality points toward the future. With its end in B Minor – except for the beginning, the only B Minor chord in the whole sonata – tonality is buried in this dusky key: a new age begins.

The Variations op. 27 by Anton Webern are among my favorite works of all. Down to the last detail, everything is constructed according to twelve-tone techniques. Despite this, however, the composition manifests brilliant expressivity. Webern – contrary to the false impressions of dry minimalists – wanted to give just about every tone its own manner of expression. He thus sang(!) his music to his students – but never told them about the techniques he used to compose it. I hope that you learn to like the restrained first movement, the humorously moving second movement and the last movement, which goes through a number of different moods, as much as I do.

This is followed by a digression into contemporary music. I had the great pleasure to be able to premiere the following two Préludes by Manfred Trojahn and am proud to present the first recording of them as well. Written as an homage to the Préludes of Claude Debussy, Trojahn finds his own modern musical language for the pieces. Just let the titles inspire you…

In conclusion, I recorded a work that is primarily formed by its terse rhythms: Alberto Ginastera’s Sonata No. 2 from 1982. The joyful first movement is based on various Latin American dances, while the nocturne- like second movement is inspired by songs of aboriginal peoples. Ginastera said the theme of this movement is a melancholy love song sung in the night. The middle section, composed in the manner of a scherzo, represents very quiet sounds in the stillness of the night. The last movement blooms once again with rhythmic power – a music whose brutality is thoroughly deliberate. It is thus not surprising that the sonata ends vigorously and energetically. I wish you great pleasure with this music!

Clemens Berg
(Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler)

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