Gunnar Berg: Chamber Music Works with Piano
01 June 2012
Gunnar Berg (1909-89) was a proponent of total serialism, apparently the first in Denmark, who unsurprisingly attended Messiaen's composition classes and the Darmstadt summer school but returned to his home country between 1957 and 1980 to write and perform music that has largely been ignored: the excellent notes reveal that several of these pieces received first performances a decade and more after their composition. Three previous releases on Dacapo have gruffly disclosed a determinedly singular voice - 'lyrically introverted', says Jens Rossel in Grove - at its most bravura and engaging in a series of 13 Eclatements written throughout his career and four 'concertos' for piano and orchestra composed for his French pianist wife to play.
On this disc of chamber music, the choice of running order, in reverse chronology, perhaps reflects Berg's own uncompromising nature. Only after a while did I discover that if I played the tracks back to front, as it were, I could start to unpick and take pleasure from what is by any standards an austere personal aesthetic. We might expect chamber music to disclose multiple personalities, or facets of that voice, but the restless iteration and periodic exchange of ideas creates a paradoxical and sometimes (especially the pieces for violin and cellos with piano) self-defeating unanimity of thought. The melodic contours rather defy you to grasp their shape but, like a mid-Atlantic wave, they are full of potential energy, their origin and direction being harder to plot.
The mood of each work is governed less by the notes than their instrumentation. The jazzy counterpoint of the 1949 Piece for trumpet, violin and piano is answered by unmistakably bluesy saxophone slides in Prosthesis (1954). Liberation arrives with the vocal line in Tøbrud ('Thaw', 1961), a setting of the poet Ivan Malinovski (a Danish René Char in idiom), which is the only music here that doesn't sound composed at the piano. Finally, the elements of Tronqué (1964) may or may not be less predetermined (I haven't seen the scores), but their interplay and points of rest at least suggest some more relaxed accommodation between principles and technique. Dacapo may have had a point in saving the best until first.