Mark Obert-Thorn and Appian Records restore Erik Then-Bergh to prominence.
Erik Then-Bergh – The Complete Electrola and Deutsche Grammophone Recordings, 1938-1958 = HANDEL: Suite No. 4 in e minor; BACH (arr. BUSONI): Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in d, BWV 1004; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101; Bagatelles, Op. 33: Nos. 1 and 4; SCHUMANN: Piano Sonata No. 2 in g, Op. 22; CHOPIN: Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1; REGER: Silhouettes, Op. 53: Nos. 2 and 6; Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Telemann, Op. 134; Piano Concerto in f, Op. 114 – Erik Then-Bergh, p./ Southwest Radio Orch., Baden-Baden/ Hans Rosbaud – APR 6021 (2-CDs) 77:39, 76:52 (10/28/16) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Erik Then-Bergh (1916-1982) for years has remained a “singular success,” his reputation having embraced one recorded work, the Piano Concerto of Max Reger – born, co-incidentally, the same 1916. Then-Bergh, however, deserves a wider acknowledgment of his singular powers – as several YouTube videos attest – as both performer and pedagogue, a long-awaited homage that Mark Obert-Thorn has managed to achieve.
Erik Then-Bergh received his first piano lessons at the age of five from his father and a further education with the German piano teacher Clara Spitta. Seinen ersten öffentlichen Auftritt hatte er mit 13 Jahren in seiner Heimatstadt. He had his first public appearance at the age of thirteen in his hometown. Später studierte er Klavier in Frankfurt am Main in der Meisterklasse von Alfred Hoehn und vertiefte dann seine Studien bei Carl Adolf Martienssen in Berlin . He later studied piano in Frankfurt am Main in the master class of Alfred Hoehn and then further studies with Carl Adolf Martienssen in Berlin. Als 20-Jähriger gewann er den Walter-Bachmann-Preis in Dresden. As a twenty-year-old he won the Walter-Bachmann Prize in Dresden. Er gab 1938 in der Deutschen Oper Berlin sein Debüt mit Klavierkonzerten von Beethoven und Brahms . He was in 1938 in the Deutsche Oper Berlin debut with piano concertos by Beethoven and Brahms. Der Höhepunkt seiner Karriere war während des Zweiten Weltkriegs, wo er unter bekannten Dirigenten spielte und 1940 den Nationalen Musikpreis als bester Nachwuchspianist gewann. The highlight of his career traversed the Second World War years, when he played under famous conductors and 1940, won the National Music Prize for best young pianist. Wilhelm Furtwaengler took a particular interest in Then-Bergh, to the extent of planning a 1954 tour that would include Furtwaengler’s own Symphonic Concerto in b minor. Furtwaengler’s death, however, precluded that project, although in 1958 Then-Bergh played the large work with Arthur Rother in Berlin. Much of Then-Bergh’s later career, which included his serving as a judge at various competitions, found him in Munich, where he had taught for thirty years.
Producer and Restoration Enginner Obert-Thorn has undertaken a chronological approach in assembling Then-Bergh’s records, despite the omission of the 1942 Schumann Kinderszenen for Telefunken. Handel’s Suite No. 4 in e (rec. November 1940) reveals a pianist of diverse, Romantic – in the sense of doubling octaves in the bass part – touches and dynamics, opening with a brisk percussive Allegro, but then displaying a soft intimacy in the Allemande and Courante. The polyphony remains supple and liquid. The Sarabande retains a Spanish nobility in its ornamental arioso. The playful Gigue has transparency and lilt, and we can admire the pianist’s solid landings on cadences. The fiery recording of the monumental Bach Chaconne (24 August 1938) – the music immortalized in an eldritch way in the film The Beast with 5 Fingers – received plaudits from David Hall. This recording represents Then-Bergh’s debut on disc, and it provides a vivid sense of his phenomenal technical arsenal as well as his stamina for the long line. In the presto passages, we feel an astonishing momentum without any loss of the musical pulse. Here is a bravura that subsumes itself to the greater whole. With the sudden shift to a diminished dynamic and gradual crescendo, the organ-effect – Ave, Busoni! – of Then-Bergh’s sonority comes full force, lively and supple. The last three minutes provide a meditation or epilogue, an inspired reverie in tones that point to Debussy, and so we liken Then-Bergh to Walter Gieseking. The music culminates in grand block chord and toccata gestures, a magnificent peroration worthy of the best interpreters of Busonis‘ mighty transcription.
The Beethoven Sonata in A Major (rec. February 1939) represents the intense concision of the composer of 1816, uttering small gestures that can explode into kernels or amalgams of concentrated energy. The music demands heartfelt sentiment in the course of plastic and poetic figures. Alfred Brendel once compared this sonata to a string quartet. The twenty-two-year-old Then-Bergh approaches the music with reverence and finely etched, ornamented figurations, not simply banging out the Vivace alla Marcia. The piano sonority in the extreme registers proves pert and clear, contrapuntally – particularly potent in the last movement – incisive without any clumsy ping in the bass. The Adagio projects a lovely innigkeit. Then-Bergh recorded nine of the Beethoven Sonatas for posterity on Eterna and Supraphon, but few seem currently available in CD format. At the same February 1939 session, Then-Bergh cut two small Silhouettes of Max Reger, Op. 53. These provide, alternately, a demure delicacy and passionate surge (Ziemlich langsam) and modal mystery and ardent effusion (Langsam, schwermuethig) in the style of late Brahms, especially his Op. 119.
Then-Bergh used to admonish his students to follow the Clara Schumann edition of husband Robert Schumann’s g minor Sonata of 1839 (rec. September 1939). At several points, the composer demands impossible speeds after having already required extreme velocity. Despite its clear toccata impulses, the music allows Then-Bergh to highlight its unity of effect. The lyrical passages assume a direct, personal, and meditative character, rife with allusions to Robert Schumann’s psychological and literary personae. The Andantino provides a good object lesson for the inward Schumann style. The Scherzo hints at what Then-Bergh’s Carnaval might have bequeathed us. The Presto passages at the conclusion of the outer movements testify to a pianist of glittering, sensational technique. The one Chopin piece from Then-Bergh, the late Nocturne in B Major, dates from Autumn 1940. The music combines Bach polyphony and operatic arioso – in the middle section – of the Bellini school. Then-Bergh controls his spare pedal and the glistening ornaments to produce an organic, unified moment of melancholy beauty, given Chopin’s idiosyncratic approach to harmonic movement.
Besides from the two 1802 Beethoven Bagatelles, Op. 33 (27 June 1942) for Telefunken, the entire Disc Two devotes itself to large compositions by Max Reger. The E-flat Bagatelle has polish and a suave sense of its rondo form. The A Major offers a lyrical Andante that easily suggests songful Mendelssohn. Reger took his theme for his Op. 134 Variations (rec. 27 June 1942) from Telemann’s Table-Music Suite No. 1, and then inventing twenty-three variants, a chorale, and a monumental fugue – obviously influenced by the Brahms set on Handel, Op. 24. Prior to this historic recording, I knew only those versions by Bolet and Serkin. Reger himself had set music to a Bach theme, Op. 81. Then-Bergh, like Bolet after him, does not play so fast as to smear what are already heavy chords and tricky runs. We might speculate that Liszt, more than Brahms, influences this vast, thirty-minute work from the outbreak of WW I, 1914. To my mind, the F Minor Concerto of 1910 (rec. 29-30 April 1958), a gloomy and often convulsive work, has never recovered from Reger’s meeting with the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3 in f, Op. 5. Much of the concerto seems entirely derivative, its melodic content forced, rather than a spontaneous expression of song. But for clarity, intensity, and conviction in a performance, the collaboration with Hans Rosbaud has and will serve indefinitely. This set has been a fine reminder of a talent too often overlooked in the annals of gifted musicians.