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Ernst von GEMMINGEN (1759-1813)
Violin Concerto No. 3 in D major [22:46]
Violin Concerto No. 4 in A major [28.45]
François-Joseph GOSSEC (1734-1829)
Symphony Op. 6, No. 2 in D major [16.42]
Kolja Lessing (violin)
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Ulf Schirmer, Sebastian Weigle (Gossec)
rec. 12-14 March 2014, 24 March 2015 (Gossec), BR Studio 1, München, Germany
CPO 777 866-2 [68:25]

You can always count on CPO to introduce unfamiliar names into the repertoire and many, given the label’s nationality, will hail from Germany. They have already issued von Gemmingen’s first two violin concertos (cpo 777 454-2) with the same artists, and where the fill-up was the Sinfonia in F by Johann Matthias Sperger. For the present CD, they have included a symphony by Gossec, certainly better-known than Sperger and, for that matter, von Gemmingen himself.

In the comprehensive and informative sleeve-notes, violin-soloist Kolja Lessing has contributed a short essay entitled ‘The escapades of Ernst von Gemmingen’, where he paints a biographical picture, despite acknowledging that practically nothing has come to light about the Celle-born self-taught composer, or the four concertos that are his only extant works.

Both concertos on the CD are premiere recordings, and date from around 1800. This puts them some twenty-five years after Mozart’s main examples in the genre, and roughly contemporary with Beethoven’s two Romances. His concerto appeared in 1806, while Spohr’s and Paganini’s followed at least some twenty years later. Lessing refers to the works as almost akin to ‘operas for the violin’, and the soloist is very much the prima donna here, with her part certainly full of panache, plenty of double-stops and use of the high register, and yet not without some bel canto playing required, too. All this was evident in the first two concertos, but von Gemmingen has extended the demands here. In fact, while Paganini’s first Violin Concerto didn’t appear until sometime between 1811 and 1817, there are definite suggestions of the Genoan virtuoso’s stylistic presence here. Both concertos have cadenzas which Lessing composed as late as the winter of 2013-14, but in fact the autograph scores resurfaced only as late as 1993, when they were discovered in the music library of Hornberg Castle in the Black Forest. There follows a more extensive essay on the life of van Gemmingen by Andreas Traub which certainly gives a great detail of helpful information about this unknown composer.

Understandably these two concertos are not the outpouring of youthful high spirits, but rather of a forty-year-old man who certainly knows his craft well, despite there being no evidence of anything else from his pen, save for the first two concertos. In the Violin Concerto No. 3 in D major, Traub makes great play of the composer apparently being involved in motivic development. A good number of the themes in the opening ‘Allegro moderato’ are based on a descending triad, and which also appears in the Rondo Finale, and in inverted form as an ascending triad. However, sometimes too much can be read into this thematic process, and, in any case, triadic movement is hardly uncommon — using the first, third and fifth note of the scale melodically. Irrespective, it’s certainly an attractive and well-structured opening gambit.

It’s abundantly clear that von Gemmingen can write an appealing melody when called for. This is how the second movement (Romance: Adagio) begins, in the tonic minor (D minor) which alternates with the major; this juxtaposition of major and minor sections making for a simple, yet effective construction. The Rondo finale is a cheerful confection, with much Haydnesque humour along the way. The B minor episode provides a particularly attractive contrast, and there is again some effective use of double-stopping in the solo part. It's all very jolly to listen to.

The Violin Concerto No. 4 in A major shares its key with von Gemmingen’s first concerto but shows greater flexibility in its formal breadth than any of its predecessors. Once more the figuration is largely scales, arpeggios and double-stops. This again firmly places the violin centre-stage. The writing is effective and idiomatic for the instrument. There is also greater melodic invention in the opening ‘Allegro’ as well as noticeably more sectional contrast, especially in the development. Lessing’s cadenza really shows complete empathy with the composer’s style, and fits in seamlessly. Von Gemmingen chooses a somewhat remoter key for his ‘Largo’ slow movement – that of C major – but the writing is charming and captivating nonetheless. Quite attention-grabbing is the sudden shift into E flat major for the middle section, but again it works well. The composer’s harmonic experiments here – favouring mediant (third-at-a-time) relationships (moving from A major to F sharp minor, or C major to E flat major) – are tellingly done. It is something that became very familiar in the works of Schubert. Von Gemmingen once more favours rondo form for his finale. This opens in a lilting two-in-a-bar, with some double-stopping adding to the decided Italianate feel of the writing. The composer has a delightful surprise in store, as he turns the two-in-a-bar start to a three-in-a-bar polonaise for the second episode. Its middle section, in B minor, includes some bolder modulations, before the original two-in-a-bar music returns as the finale moves to its close.

Originally French-born, but his birthplace now a part of Belgium, François-Joseph Gossec is relatively well-known by comparison with von Gemmingen. He could be considered the leading composer of eighteenth-century symphonies in France. His Symphony Op. 6 No. 2 in D major, opens with a short ‘Largo’ introduction before the ‘Allegro’ unfolds. This is then followed by a Largo’ slow movement in the subdominant key of G major. The finale in duple metre – marked ‘Allegro, poco presto’ – is light-hearted and frothy, and shows off the composer’s well-honed orchestral skills, especially in the way he handles his woodwind. Structurally holding no surprises, it is eminently tuneful throughout and makes easy demands on the listener.

Returning briefly to the case of von Gemmingen, both Lessing and Traub postulate that, once they have become better known, von Gemmingen’s four violin concertos may well assume an important place in the history of their genre. The composer himself, despite the paucity of his output, should also merit our greater attention.

The jury’s out on this one, I feel, but it can’t be denied that this well-recorded and played CD – and its predecessor on the same label – has at least done its bit to raise the profile of Ernst von Gemmingen. His concertos were written at a time when fledgling Romanticism was beginning to emerge from the departing Classicism at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Philip R Buttall



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