Johann Nicolaus DENNINGER (1743-1813)
Piano Trio in G major [12:46]
Piano Trio No 5 op. 4 No. 1 in E flat major [11:40]
Piano Trio op. 4 No. 2 in A major [15:31]
Piano Trio op. 4 No. 3 in B flat major [15:37]
Trio 1790 (Harold Hoeren (fortepiano); Annette Wehnert (violin); Imola Gombos (cello))
rec. 13, 18-20 May 2012, Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln, Germany
CPO 777 926-2 [56:23]

Johann Nicolaus Denninger was one of the many late 18th-century musicians who, in their various capacities as instrumentalists, composers and court directors of music, helped in no small way to prepare the ground for their more illustrious contemporaries. Beavering quietly away in small princely residences, most of them achieved work of some import. They on occasion received recognition beyond their place of work, because publishers of the day found some financial merit in printing and selling their compositions. In the ‘Musikalische Real-Zeitung für das Jahr 1790’ – a newspaper published in the city of Speyer, a town on the Rhine, some fifteen miles south of Ludwigshafen and Mannheim – there is mention of a certain Kapellmeister (in charge of both sacred and secular music Denninger) at Öhringen, who, according to the writer, ‘only conducts with the violin, but his main instrument is the keyboard, which he plays with skill. He is also known to be a composer’.

Denninger, who hailed from Thuringia, in fact, had published two keyboard concertos, and several keyboard ‘sonatas with accompaniment for violin and cello’. It is presumed that he received his initial musical education in Hildburghausen, before moving westwards, along with a number of fellow Thuringian musicians, to find employment at Lutheran courts, or cities with definite Lutheran leanings, in Denninger’s case, the small congregation of Gaugrehweiler.

The sleeve-notes by Dr Hans Oskar Koch shed considerably more light on Denninger’s life and working conditions at the time, while merely devoting just a single paragraph to the music itself heard on the CD. Talking of the composer’s output overall, Koch continues: ‘All that has survived are a few instrumental works centring on his main instrument, the harpsichord, or the recently fashionable hammerflügel (fortepiano). In form and style these works reflect the developmental state attained in the final two decades of the 18th century, with Haydn and Mozart as their principal models. The opening fast movements (with one exception) are set in 4/4 time and adhere to sonata form. The lively finales reveal, in a folklike vein — here the original German adjective is ‘volkstümlich’, which could equally well be rendered in English by ‘popular’ — various types of rondo form and are mainly set in a cheerful 6/8 metre abounding in hunting calls. In contrast a courtly minuet plus trio and a melodious andante, virtually predestined for sets of variations, function as middle movements.’

The Piano Trio in G opens in especially catchy fashion, significantly enhanced by the sound of period instruments. As their definition suggests – ‘sonatas with accompaniment for violin and cello – most of the ‘action’ is with the keyboard and violin, the cello mainly restricted to augmenting and less frequently elaborating the bass line, but this comes as no surprise historically, and was part of the natural progression towards the later true piano trio where each instrument was an integral part of the ensemble. In the present Trio, the second movement is a stately Menuetto, with a Trio section in the subdominant. As Koch comments, the finale here is indeed a jovial Rondo in 6/8, with episodes in the expected keys of D major (dominant) and G minor (tonic minor). The latter episode is somewhat extended with a brief, almost improvisatory foray into its own relative major key of B flat, and where the cello has a little more independence, in terms of line.

The Piano Trio No. 1 in E flat from the Op. 4 set, is a two-movement affair, where the opening Allegro assai is in triple time. Very soon the cello starts to gain the freedom which was only hinted at in the previous work, and there are some pleasant moments in the development section, where the key moves into the relative minor (C minor). This time, the closing Rondo is a good-humoured little tune in duple metre, and where Denninger varies the keys of the subsequent episodes, by going into the somewhat darker relative minor for the first one, and which subsequently proves to be the only one. With its almost Beethovenian gruffness it provides greater contrast with the rondo theme. A short keyboard cadenza leads to the rondo theme’s return, but, and as Koch indicates by referring to ‘various types of rondo form’, there is no second episode, and the movement closes just over three minutes after it begins.

The Piano Trio No. 2 in A major revisits the three-movement format, where the opening Allegro again has the cello moving more independently, even though keyboard and violin still dominate the melodic texture. On this occasion, the second movement is a true slow movement – a singing ‘cantabile’ in the subdominant, where, even if the cello doesn’t share much of the thematic material as such, it does provides interesting countermelodies to the other players’ lines. The middle portion of this ternary-form movement (ABA) starts in B minor, and offers an effective contrast to the opening and closing sections. Once more the closing Rondo is in 6/8, and suggests the spirit of the German Ländler in its especially folk-like feel. Denninger returns to the key pattern of the earlier Piano Trio in G major, with an attractive lyrical episode in the tonic minor (A minor), which visits several related keys on its travels, encountering one quite unexpected juxtaposition. In the present Rondo, both returns of the rondo theme are pre-empted by a short keyboard cadenza.

The Piano Trio No. 4 in B flat major reverts to just two movements, and stylistically looks very much towards the early piano trios of Haydn, both in terms of texture, and musical ideas. The cello has an increasingly more important role here, though never to the degree that the other two instruments have. As mentioned above, the second movement is a Theme and set of six Variations, where different rhythmic accompaniments are used to develop the material, rather than any attempt whatsoever to stray from the theme’s basic harmony, even by venturing into the minor key. There is greater virtuosity evident here from the fortepiano, and Denninger does try to vary his texture with some effective pizzicato writing for the strings.

If you’re interested in the development of the piano trio as a genre, then this CD will no doubt be of interest. Conversely, while owing a debt of gratitude to German label CPO for bringing the music of yet another unknown name to the fore, Denninger’s contribution isn’t exactly on any epic scale either.

The CD is not quite bargain price, but is still extremely tuneful, catchy and cheerful to listen to. The music is very well played and recorded, enhanced by the use of period instruments and contemporary performance practices. You will certainly come to know a good deal more about Johann Nicolaus Denninger, the man and his music, were you to add this unquestionably attractive item to your collection.

Philip R Buttall


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