Berger, Wilhelm


Berger, Wilhelm

Piano Quintet in F minor / Op. 95 (Score & Parts)


Berger, Wilhelm

Piano Quintet in F minor / Op. 95 (Score & Parts)

Wilhelm Berger
(b. Boston, 9 August 1861 – d. Jena, 15 January 1911)

Piano Quintet in F minor, op. 95

Though a quick perusal of the score to his F-minor Piano Quintet (op. 95) immediately whets the appetite for more, Wilhelm Berger (1861–1911) is completely unknown today, even among musicologists. Almost an exact contemporary of Gustav Mahler, he does not even appear on the periphery of the standard music histories of fin de siècle Germany. Berger is a truly forgotten figure who is at best occasionally mentioned in the statistics of the period’s art music. Given the music we find in his Piano Quintet, we can only stand amazed at the wealth of music written at the time, a wealth so great that it allows us to nonchalantly ignore music of this caliber in our concert life. We need only compare the burgeoning melancholy of the brief string quartet section of the opening Allegro non troppo ed energico (15 mm. after E), the tender beginning of the slow, lyrical second movement (Poco adagio), or the radiantly Mediterranean opening of the following Molto vivace to obtain an inkling of the sort of buried gem of the piano quintet repertoire we are dealing with. The piece is in a class by itself, from the melodic quality of its themes to the variegated hues of its ever-changing but never overloaded late-romantic harmonies, from the varied course of its musical design to the virtuosity required by its generally limpid texture, which demands considerable technique and above all sensitive ensemble playing from the musicians to adequately present its constant shifts of emphasis between melody, accompaniment, and tutti. It is these shifts that constitute the charm of this music, especially in the third movement (Molto vivace), which forms the aesthetic heart of Berger’s Piano Quintet with its constant yet elegantly poised interplay of sections dominated by agile scalar figures and lyrical moments governed by chordal harmonies. Viewed in this light, this round dance is constructed in much the same way as such admirable fast middle movements as the Scherzo – Furiant: Molto vivace from Antonín Dvořák’s Second Piano Quintet in A major (op. 81) or the Allegro vivo from Gabriel Fauré’s Second Piano Quintet in C minor (op. 115), both of which reveal an equally felicitous combination of richly developed contrasting moods. Berger’s op. 95 has little in common with the gravitas and ponderous counterpoint of many piano quintets by his fin de siècle German counterparts, such as the two C-minor quintets by his successor at Meiningen, Max Reger (op. post., 1898, and op. 64, 1901), or Friedrich Gernsheim’s quintets in D minor, (op. 35, 1876) and B minor (1896).

Born in Boston in 1861, Berger returned with his family the following year to Germany, where he pursued a musical career typical of the Wilhelmine Era. From 1878 to 1882 he studied at the Berlin Musikhochschule, where one of his teachers was Woldemar Bargiel, the half-brother of Clara Schumann and himself the author of a magnificent String Octet in C minor (op. 15a), and Friedrich Kiel, a leading composition teacher of his day. Thereafter he himself taught at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory in Berlin (1888-1903) and gained a reputation as a pianist and conductor. In 1903 he was inducted into the Berlin Academy of the Arts and followed Hans von Bülow and Fritz Steinbach as head of the renowned Meiningen Court Orchestra, which did such yeoman’s service inter alia for the late music of Brahms. It was there that he composed his Piano Quintet, which was first published in Leipzig in 1905. Indeed, Berger was altogether a highly productive writer of chamber music. Other works from his pen include three violin sonatas (A major, op. 7; F major, op. 29; G minor, op. 70), a D-minor Cello Sonata (op. 28), a G-minor Clarinet Trio (op. 94), two piano quartets (A major, op. 21; C minor, op. 100), a G-minor String Trio (op. 69), and an E-minor String Quintet (op. 75).

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