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Alexander Ernst FESCA (1820-1849)
Piano Trio No. 2 op. 12 in E minor [31:24]
Piano Trio No. 5 op. 46 in B minor [33:19]
Trio Paian (Ilian Garnetz (violin); Marin Smesnoi (cello); Alexandra Neumann (piano))
rec. 2012, Kammermusikstudio SWR Stuttgart
CPO 777862-2 [65:54]

Sadly a number of our greatest composers died before reaching the age of forty – Schubert was thirty-one, Mozart thirty-five, Mendelssohn thirty-eight and Chopin a mere thirty-nine. Yet, in such a relatively short life-span they composed so much and of such quality as to ensure their ever-lasting place in posterity.

To achieve this before reaching thirty is decidedly tough. In this age-group, possibly the name only and perhaps one or two representative works have stood the test of time. Among these, Arriaga (19), Lekeu (24), Pergolesi (26) and Alain (29) are familiar to greater or lesser degree. This largely now through the sterling endeavours of record companies, ever seeking to broaden listeners’ experience, as well as contributing to an increasing number of niche markets.

A leading player in this field is the excellent German company CPO, which has already introduced an immense number of less-well-known composers to collectors. This has then spawned further investigations of the vast repertoire still out there, much of which is relatively untapped.

Alexander Fesca was born in Karlsruhe and made his career as a virtuoso pianist and composer. He was the second of four sons of composer Friedrich Ernst Fesca (1789-1826) and his wife Charlotte, born Dingelstedt, daughter of the horn player Johann Heinrich Dingelstedt. Fesca had his first real success with the opera ‘Mariette’, and was best known during his life through his songs, piano pieces and chamber music. He also wrote a five-act heroic opera ‘Il Trovatore’, another of his major works. Like his father he died of tuberculosis but at the untimely age of twenty-eight.

At the time, there was a general feeling that some of Fesca’s works - not the operas - were somewhat lightweight in character, something that Schumann had alluded to, when reviewing the second and third trios in his ‘Neue Zeitschrift für Musik’ in 1842. He referred to both works as having a ‘butterfly nature’. However, the first three piano trios – there are six in total – did draw high praise from Giacomo Meyerbeer, whom Fesca met personally at least once during a visit to Berlin in 1841.

The Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor was published in Paris in 1843, when the composer was twenty. Its opening ‘Allegro’ is clearly cast in a conventional first-movement sonata form, with an attractive start which is very reminiscent of Mendelssohn in particular, and with some effective writing for piano and strings alike. The ensuing ‘Adagio ma non troppo’ in the tonic major (E major) again hints at Mendelssohn with its idyllic ‘song without words’ atmosphere, only to become slightly more agitated in the central section in the relative minor (C sharp minor). The third movement – a fleetingly brief Scherzo – introduces a folk-like sense to the overall mix, before the Finale re-establishes the home key with another regular sonata-form movement, though not without some sense of greater tension in the writing. Fesca has one surprise left for the listener when he concludes the movement with a slow Adagio coda, derived from the hymn-like theme of the second movement. This imparts a sense of simple cyclic design to the otherwise most attractive but formally conventional trio.

The Piano Trio No. 5 in B minor appeared only two years after the second trio and has an immediate appeal particularly due to its abundance of melodic invention. The first movement is certainly not just the conventional opening gambit, given its quite elaborate slow introduction in the tonic major (B major), conceived as a kind of barcarolle, in characteristic 12/8 metre. As Andreas Friesenhagen points out in the most informative sleeve-notes, none of Fesca’s fellow-composers – Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann or Brahms – was able to boast any such similar slow introduction, and especially one that is in the opposing tonality to the rest of the movement. When the ‘Allegro molto con spirito’ does begin, the mood changes abruptly from the dreamlike melodies of the ‘Andante’ introduction, to an energetic and spirited sonata-form first subject, which leads into a somewhat less hectic second subject. Both these themes are worked out thoroughly in the ensuing development section, before a conventional recapitulation, rounded off by a harmonically captivating coda ends the movement.

The B-major slow movement is cast in a sonata-form design, but here both themes are given in the same key, rather than the expected contrast of a related key for the second one. From the melodic and harmonic standpoints, both themes exhibit the same syrupy propensity sometimes encountered in Mendelssohn’s slow movements, where perhaps just one more spoonful might be felt as sickly sweet. The central section, which functions rather like a development, sees the main theme given in G major. Friesenhagen refers to this as the ‘mediant’ key (here in the English translation as well as his original German text), but in fact ‘G’ is the lower ‘mediant’, which we would call ‘submediant’. As this would be G sharp in any case because of the key signature, the correct reference should be ‘flattened submediant’ key. This is of mere academic interest, as the musical effect is quite charming, and the more so because of the effectively-contrasting section in B minor that follows.

The B-minor Scherzo takes the folk element of the second trio to a new level, enhanced by some decidedly rustic-sounding bare fifths from the strings and monophonic lines an octave apart from the piano. There is another surprise in store for the Trio. He returns to the tonic major (B Major), which is standard practice but by changing the opening meter from 3/4 to 9/8 – still three beats in the bar, but where the beats are now divided into threes, rather than twos. This, coupled with the marking ‘Grazioso’ (Gracefully), finely contrasts the earlier rustic element with something straight out of the more sophisticated world of the salon. The finale can be seen structurally as a four-section form (ABAB), which Friesenhagen interprets as a sonata-form without development. Again the key relationship from the slow movement is alluded to, when Fesca contrasts an appealing ballad-style theme in the home key with an expressive string melody in G major (the submediant relationship), which returns in the tonic major, gently at first, but then culminates in a brief, yet sufficiently impressive close of a mere ten seconds or so. Shades of Hummel, and even Chopin - the end of his third piano sonata, for example, which happens to be in the same key - make fleeting appearances here. Overall it’s Fesca’s gift for melody, allied to appropriate, rather than seriously academic formal construction, that makes these two trios so appealing from the start.

On this occasion CPO hasn’t opted to record all six trios as one release, unlike their quite recent issue of fellow-German Robert Kahn’s two-CD set of his four piano trios (CPO 777 791-2). I think this is a sensible move on their part, as they have already issued Fesca’s Two Septets, which make equally attractive listening (CPO 9996172). There is also some other Fesca chamber and orchestral music on the same label, but this is from the pen of father, Friedrich Ernst. However, if the two piano trios recorded here should generate some more interest in the music of the son, no doubt CPO will seriously consider adding to Alexander Ernst Fesca’s discography by getting around to record the remaining trios at some juncture.

The playing and recording are first-class, and it’s also good to see that CPO have, on this occasion, engaged the services of an English translator for this section of the notes where, in the past, the odd bit of ‘Denglish’ occasionally did tend to let the side down somewhat.

Philip R Buttall
 

 

 




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