Exploring Winterberg’s Piano Music

TOCC0531 - cover

WINTERBERG: Sonata II. 4 Intermezzi. Suite Theresienstadt. Piano Suite. 7 Neo-Impressionist Pieces in 12-Tone / Brigitte Helbig, pno / Toccata Classics TOCC 0531

Having already reviewed and enjoyed Hans Winterberg’s chamber works, I felt the need to hear his piano music. And thank goodness, not only is the music good but so is the pianist. Brigitte Helbig is not one of these drippy Romantic musicians who turn Villa-Lobos, for instance, into Chopin. She plays with fire and a strong attack, which suits Winterberg’s scores just fine.

The Sonata II is typical of his music: bitonal but not so outré as to scare away all conservative listeners, though of course you’ll never hear this music played on your local classical radio station. It’s too edgy for that. The best way one could characterize this piece would be to call it Czech Bartók, but even that wouldn’t do it justice. The music has strong rhythms and follows standard lines of development, but the bitonality is a constant. Not to put too fine a pin on it, but Winterberg seemed to be one of those rare composers who actually thought in bitonal terms rather than simply using bitonality as a gimmick to draw attention, if you know what I mean. Listen, for instance, to the second movement, which has a repeating bass line played in D minor against right-hand figures in Ab minor using whole tones. In the third movement, “Molto vivace,” he combined bitonality with driving motor rhythms, almost like Stravinsky.


Brigitte Helbig

The Intermezzi are lighter, airier pieces in bitonal mode with a lot of space between phrases which adds to their piquancy—at least, until you reach No. 4, titled “Wild, heftig.” This one has pounding rhythms interspersed with its delicate moments, as if Winterberg was purposely being schizophrenic in his musical personality. Once again, Helbig plays this music with great insight to its structure as well as the proper touch.

The Suite Theresienstadt opens with a very formal (but equally bitonal) “Praeludium” which sounds like Bach playing in two different keys—and tempos, since it switches back and forth between 2/4 and 3/4. Truthfully, however, the “Intermezzo” is also very formally written. Winterberg was lucky to not have been sent to the Nazi internment camp until January 1945, from which point on the Third Reich was in serious trouble and had little time to spend killing Jews, thus Winterberg and his fellow inmates luckily escaped execution. The piece is more thoughtful and reflective than violent or angst-filled, but a good piece it most certainly is. The “Postludium” is filled with rapid, somewhat repeating double-time figures played against each other in the two hands of the pianist, a far trickier piece to play than one might think at first hearing. Only at the very end, where the pianist slams out high, repeated F major chords, does one feel the mood of finality…although for Winterberg, it might have signaled a triumph over death.


The Praeludium from Winterberg’s “Suite Theresienstadt”

Interestingly the Piano Suite, dating from a decade later, has some of the same qualities, but here they are a bit tamer and more formal than in the Suite Theresienstadt. The brief (2:15) “Passacaglia” sounds almost whimsical, far less serious than the passacaglias of Bach or Brahms. Even the “Marsch,” though adhering strictly to a march rhythm and not really whimsical in form, sounds lighter in mood than the similar pieces of, say, Erwin Schulhoff or Stefan Wolpe. The fourth movement, “Bucolica,” sounds whimsical in a wistful sort of manner, not really “bucolic” as one might imagine it would be. Truthfully, the final “Toccata” is the most bucolic piece in the entire suite, a nice bitonal romp with more shifting tempos.

Yet perhaps the most fascinating and complex music here are the 7 Neo-Impressionist Pieces in 12-Tone, written when Winterberg was 72 years old (1973). These combined the aesthetics of Ravel with chromatic movement in a wholly unique and individual manner, yet they do not use a strict 12-tone row. Rather, as Gerold Gruber points out in the liner notes, “It appears to be based on the use of the chromatic scale with diverse variations. In other words, he resorts to each tone being of equal hierarchic value in the manner of Schönberg’s tone-rows. Nor does Winterberg appear to use alternative twelve-tone techniques such as the one developed by Joseph Matthias Hauer.” Yet none of this detracts from the fascination of the piece; in the first movement, “Very fast and gently flowing,” he uses the unusual time signature of 6/16. and in the third piece, “Sehr bewegt,” he pits 3 against 4 except for brief passages of 2 against 3. But it takes a very highly tuned ear to catch all of this without looking at the score; to the average listener, it seems to be moving in 4 most of the time with brief moments of quicker tempi in a different rhythm. Annotator Michael Haas describes most of these pieces as “kaleidoscopic” in nature, and indeed they are.

With the exception of the Suite Theresienstadt, all of these works receive their first recordings here. I must applaud Brigitte Helbig for her brilliant and often exciting interpretations as well as Toccata Classics for having the foresight to release this disc. Bravos all around!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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