Burgmuller: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2 / Bernius, Hofkapelle Stuttgart

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BURGMÜLLER Symphonies: No. 1 in c; No. 2 in D Frieder Bernius, cond; Stuttgart Hofkapelle CARUS 83.226 (64:53)

While the musical world showers attention on Schumann and Chopin in their bicentennial years (two composers who hardly need it), others go sadly wanting. Otto Nicolai and Ferenc Erkel, also born in 1810, are recognized names whose music could well benefit from bicentennial exposure. Almost entirely forgotten except by the Carus recording company, based in Stuttgart, is Norbert Burgmüller, one of the shortest-lived (he died at 26 from an epileptic fit) and, on the basis of his two symphonies, one of the most promising of Germany’s Romantic-era composers.

Burgmüller studied with Louis Spohr and Moritz Hauptmann, but despite these connections never found a job and lived in obscurity. (I’m cribbing from Klaus Martin Kopitz’s excellent and extensive annotations here.) Schumann left this tribute to Burgmüller: “Instead of fate striking again among the mediocrity which surrounds us in droves, it has taken away our most talented master. Franz Schubert was acclaimed even during his lifetime; Burgmüller, however, barely enjoyed the beginnings of public recognition and was known only to a small circle, and then probably more as a curiosity than as a musician.” Mendelssohn too championed Burgmüller; he conducted his Overture in F Minor, was soloist in his Piano Concerto, may have conducted the premiere of the First Symphony, and wrote a funeral march upon learning of his death.

With a compositional career of barely more than half a dozen years, it is not surprising to learn that Burgmüller left just 17 opus numbers. These include a Piano Concerto in F?-Minor (his op. 1, composed in his late teens), about 20 songs, four string quartets, and the two symphonies on this release. Like Brahms’s half a century later, Burgmüller’s first and second symphonies are in C Minor and D Major, respectively, and even anticipate Brahms in their character—the First a stern, mighty struggle from anguished C Minor to a triumphant C Major; the Second a more joyful, pastoral setting. The First is a traditional four-movement work lasting slightly over half an hour. The Second lacks a finale and its scherzo was completed by Schumann; even so, it is of nearly the same length as the First. (More recently, the fragment Burgmüller left of the finale was expanded into a complete movement by Raymond Meylan.) The North American premiere of the Second was given by the Thunder Bay Symphony (Ontario) in Sault Ste. Marie in 2006.

The symphonies are obviously from the time and place of Mendelssohn and Schumann, Weber, and Spohr. But Burgmüller’s First also looks forward to Brahms’s First in many ways. Its first movement has a slow introduction from which the rest of the movement grows; its main theme is built from a C-Minor arpeggio figure; the second theme is glowing and cheerful; the sustained transition to the recapitulation is fraught with pent-up tension; the movement ends in C Major; and timpani play a major role in the overall sonority. Brahms’s second movement is in the mediant (E Major) while Burgmüller’s is in the submediant (A?). There is much beautiful woodwind work here in music that recalls Schumann in his Eusebius mode. The Scherzo is actually more Bruckner than it is Brahms or Schumann, a fiercely determined onslaught in C Minor with a gentle, contrasting Trio in which once again woodwinds come to the fore. The finale, the weakest of the four movements, reverts to the world of Weber and Spohr. Though Burgmüller began writing this symphony while he was still finishing up his university studies, it is no student work. The composer had a knack for both lyricism and for fashioning thematic material that would be eminently suitable for the extended development and manipulation required in a full-length symphony.

The Second Symphony is no less fascinating, though I prefer the First. Of special interest are the prominent use of brightly-colored trumpets that lend it a joyful air, long, wistful oboe solos ( à la Bizet’s Symphony in C) in the slow movement set over a ticking accompaniment, and a surprise ending to the Scherzo.

A search on ArkivMusic turned up a surprising number of Burgmüller discs—nearly everything he wrote, including previous recordings of both symphonies (No. 1 on Sterling with the Kassel State Theater Orchestra in 2002, No.2 on MD&G with the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra in 1992). I’ve not heard them, but it is unlikely the symphonies can be better played than what we have on this Carus release. Furthermore, here they are both on a single disc. The Hofkapelle Stuttgart would appear to be a small, period-instrument band judging from the photo in the inlay booklet. It was founded by its present conductor, Frieder Bernius, only in 2006. It boasts an exceptionally full, warm sound, possibly a result of the excellent engineering as well. The woodwind playing in particular is deeply satisfying, both in the solo passages (the oboist is phenomenal) and in choir work. Intonation is spot-on, there is not a trace of effort involved, ensemble is well-nigh perfect, and Bernius imparts exceptionally sensitive phrasing to the music.

An excellent Web site in English and German provides much useful information about Burgmüller (burgmueller.com), including recorded excerpts of every composition.

FANFARE: Robert Markow

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: CV83226

  • UPC: 409350832260

  • Label: Carus

  • Composer: Norbert Burgmüller

  • Conductor: Frieder Bernius

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Hofkapelle Stuttgart


  1. Symphony no 1 in C minor, Op. 2

    Composer: Norbert Burgmüller

    Ensemble: Hofkapelle Stuttgart

    Conductor: Frieder Bernius

  2. Symphony no 2 in D major, Op. 11

    Composer: Norbert Burgmüller

    Ensemble: Hofkapelle Stuttgart

    Conductor: Frieder Bernius