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alternatively Crotchet

Hans KÖßLER (KOESSLER) (1853-1926)
String Quintet in D minor (1913) [28.55]
String Sextet in F minor (1902) [32.50]
Frankfurter Streichsextett (Charys Schuler Punto (violin); Aisling O’Dea (violin); Ingrid Albert (viola); Kirstin Hullemann (viola); Maja Storck (cello); Christiane Steppen (cello) (in sextet only))
rec. Sendesaal das Hessichen Rundfunks, September 2003; February 2004
CPO 777269-2 [62.04]

I’m ashamed to say that until I set eyes on this disc I had never heard of Hans Koessler - I will write his name in this anglicised manner.
With so many composers one has not come across before there is, after hearing their music often a sense of ‘Well now I know why I’ve never heard of him/her’. With Koessler the opposite remarks passed not only into my mind but into those of friends on whom I experimented and asked them who the composer might be. At first they said, what fine and attention-grabbing music it is. Brahms’ name soon came up with some trepidation and then Bruckner with even more. At the name of Koessler there was considerable bewilderment. So we asked Google. There are, it seems, two symphonies and over 130 works many of them vocal - Koessler was a fine choral conductor. These are alluded to in the booklet notes. Nothing of Koessler’s has been recorded before as far as I am aware but the annotator expresses a wish that one day there will be more – an aspiration I would thoroughly endorse.
Talking of the booklet notes they are by Eckhardt van der Hoogen and are like no others that I had ever read before. He makes the point that Koessler’s biography is almost entirely uneventful. He was of that rather dull breed of teacher-administrator. During a period in Budapest Kodaly and Bartók passed through his hands. Earlier he had been a provincial organist with studies at the Munich academy under Joseph Rheinberger. In 1877 he was appointed director of the Dresden academy and later worked at the Cologne Opera before Budapest claimed him for twenty years. All very distinguished, of course.
You can imagine the sort of music that might come out of this background: earnest, academic and conservative. And yet the music takes one on a journey with passion and intensity. It is deeply compelling and forces you to listen further. The long movements never tire you and time passes quickly. In addition there is also a somewhat surprising originality. In other words the composer’s life story, as Hoogen is trying to say, does not enhance and does not seem to have influenced what is essentially pure music, despite its drama and a feeling that he is trying to tell us something about the big things in life. Here is one of several quotes from Hoogen who, after recounting the composer’s life, ventures “All this is about as exciting to read as the railway timetable of a rural terminus”.
I heard the pieces in the presented order which is not the chronological one. I would advise that you do the same as the Quintet which is a fine work in its own right does in fact act as a preparation for the sextet.
The Quintet’s opening movement is in sonata-form and lasts for over eight minutes. It has a strong (masculine) first subject and a rather sentimental, therefore deeply contrasting second subject. It is fascinating to see how Koessler wanders around between these twin poles to develop his structure. The ensuing adagio is beautifully constructed with a memorable opening melody. A five minute scherzo and trio follows and then an amiable but at times tough episode. The finale balances the work with contrasting ideas vying for attention.
The Sextet which is also in four movements has its scherzo third. It begins with an arresting unison idea and again is followed by a gentler second subject. The argument is symphonic in scope and moves around the keys with alacrity. The booklet annotator has produced a usefully detailed analysis of the movement. The second movement is a Dvořákian triple-time Scherzo although, in truth a rather middle-aged one in this performance. Anyway the annotator likes to think of it as Koessler having eavesdropped “on a private meeting between Bruckner and Brahms”. As he says this is not at all unlikely for “a teacher from Budapest”!
The third movement is a dreamy and meditative Adagio. Unusually I was left with the feeling that I did not want the movement to end. Finally, as the booklet says, the finale is the “true gem”. Apparently it has “the most detailed, almost diacritical (sic) instructions”. Forgetting that, it certainly suggests that Koessler was able to meet and trounce the received wisdom that composers find finales difficult and accordingly can run out of stream. Incidentally, if I may draw your attention to another comic moment in the booklet, we are informed that “Koessler was born between Bayreuth and Weichen … where his fat cousin Max Reger was to grow up about 20 years later”!. Surely he means his first cousin … doesn’t he?
No praise can be too great for The Frankfurt String Sextet despite my comment earlier. They seem to be making a habit of searching out Austro-German chamber music, especially by unknown composers. They then have editions made, rehearse, perform and quite often record this otherwise hidden music. They play with such terrific commitment and understanding that you would think that they have known this music all their young lives. They are pictured within, as incidentally, is a pen and ink drawing of a thoughtful Koessler.
The recording is vivid too although the only slight criticism I have is that sometimes the inner parts, especially in patches of especially vociferous counterpoint, are “too much with us”. I would have liked a little more restraint from them and a little more bass in the quintet.
This CD is worth getting for the booklet notes alone, let alone the wonderful performances and some very fine music.
Gary Higginson


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