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Friedrich GERNSHEIM (1839-1916)
Symphony No.1 in G minor, Op.32 (1875) [44:48]
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op 54 (1888) [32:57]
Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Mainz/Hermann Bäumer
rec. April 2012, Frankurter Hof, Mainz
CPO 777 758-2 [78:00]

Friedrich Gernsheim, a slightly younger contemporary of Brahms, has received some exposure on disc of late. I’ve encountered and reviewed some of his chamber music and here is a new series charting his symphonic works, of which this is presumably the first as, like Brahms, he wrote four symphonies.
 
The First Symphony dates from 1875 and is cast in four conventional movements. Though some commentators have been keen rather to play down the influence of Brahms, I think that it’s fairly clear that Gernsheim absorbed a great deal from the older man. There’s a metrical freedom - within limits - and a very distinct quality in the string writing that alerts one to the inheritance. That said, there are individual qualities that allow one to appreciate his own point of view, and that’s best exemplified by the charm of the delicate second subject of the slow movement, not one laden with any significant weight of expressive depth. The scherzo is exciting, with a more open-air folkloric character in the trio. One thing that demonstrates the superior quality of Gernsheim’s craft is the assured nature of his transition writing, successfully shown in the finale with also its oblique and subtle references to earlier material. One or two moments here felt almost Brucknerian but that must be coincidental; it’s a question of tradition rather than affinity.
 
The Third Symphony - the Second dates from 1882 - was completed in 1888. This is around the time that the composer became infatuated with Handel’s Israel in Egypt and he strongly patterned the new symphony as a biblical narrative, taking Miriam and the Israelites as its focus. The impetus behind each movement was laid out quite clearly, though I simplify; bondage, suffering, flight and victory. If this implies any kind of Cecil B DeMille Big Screen grandeur, then I would think again. I wouldn’t at all have divined any kind of crypto-programmatic intent, and there are no allusions to any music outside the central Western canon: certainly no Elgarian shofar. The arch of the movements reflects fairly clear emotive states but the orchestration is lightly etched and not wholly distinctive. The finale includes some introspective material amidst the muted pomp; but rather too much, critically speaking, is in solid nineteenth-century style. Despite the seeming ambition of its construction, the First Symphony is the more engaging and the more distinctive.
 
There is a 2-CD set of all four symphonies on Arte Nova conducted by Siegfried Kohler, but I’ve not heard it so can’t advance any opinion as to its qualities. That said this CPO release sounds thoroughly idiomatic and shows an appreciation of the composer’s clever orchestration.
 
Jonathan Woolf
 

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