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(1869 - 1933)

Willi Burmester was a violinist very much of his time, to a large extent representative of the transitional phase in which many German musicians moved from the ‘classical’ school of Joachim and his followers towards the more progressive styles espoused by Kreisler, Flesch and others. Burmester was, for a relatively short period of around twenty years, a very popular figure. He faded from view after World War I, however, and, despite later attempts to revive his career, died in straitened circumstances.

By all accounts, Burmester was a maverick in youth. Taught by his father from the age of four and hailed as a prodigy in Hamburg, he was sent to the Berlin Hochschule where Joachim oversaw his education, although, like many, he received tuition primarily from Joachim’s assistants. Joachim left matters of technique to others and taught only aspects of musicianship, by example. Joachim did not approve of Burmester’s playing and refused to award his certificate when he left the Hochschule at sixteen; for his part, Burmester did not appreciate his Berlin education and claimed to have been largely self-taught. Aiming to be an outright virtuoso he continued to practise Paganini works for up to ten hours a day with an energy that was ultimately his undoing when he wore the first finger of his left hand to the nerve. Surgery failed to repair the injury, which was to limit his effectiveness as a performer. Nonetheless, he was well received. In 1885, playing in the first violins of the Hamburg orchestra, he caught the attention of Hans von Bülow, who advised him and taught him much sonata repertoire. His meeting with Tchaikovsky in 1887 led to three summers of work in Pavlosk and in 1895 he made a triumphant début in London. Sibelius dedicated his Violin Concerto to him (although Burmester withdrew before the first performance, resulting in a rededication of the work to Franz von Vecsey). He was also the dedicatee of Reger’s Violin Sonatas, Op. 42 but appears never to have played them.

Burmester’s 1904 recordings reveal a limited artistic sensibility, although they are mechanically secure with clean and fastidious technique. His recording of Dussek’s Menuett is wearisome, with a monotonous, repetitive approach to phrasing, whilst the two Bach performances selected here are rather lacking in life and personality, although, again, technically tidy. Here, Burmester resorts to the aid of a spurious piano accompaniment—a reminder that these works, now considered seminal and mostly performed in their original scoring, were habitually arranged and accompanied in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Whilst none of Burmester’s recordings can be considered masterpieces, they do provide a fascinating glimpse of a once-celebrated figure, now known principally for his ‘Burmesterstücke’: short pieces of virtuoso ambition but artistic limitation, phrases that equally well describe Burmester himself.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)

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