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Friedrich Theodor FRÖHLICH (1803-1836)
String Quartet in F minor
String Quartet in G minor
String Quartet in E major
String Quartet in C minor
Rasumowsky Quartett (Dora Bratchkova (violin), Ewgenia Grandjean (violin), Gerhard Müller (viola), Alina Kudelevic (violoncello))
rec. Grosser Sendesaal des Saarländischen Rundfunks, Saarbrücken, 21-23 December 2014 & 15 April 2015
CPO 555 017-2 [61.43 + 63.18]

What a discovery! This CD has hardly been off my player since I first heard it, both for the quality of the music and the superb playing. For anyone who loves the string quartet, this is find indeed. The music is innovative, consistently interesting – and very special.

Fröhlich is not well-known. The only other piece available on CD seems to be a single song, Rückkehr in die Heimat, in a collection of Hölderlin songs (Capriccio – C10534). He is not to be confused with Johannes Frederik Fröhlich (1806 – 1860), the Danish composer. F.T. was Swiss, though he studied in Berlin for a couple of years between 1826 and 1830. There, he was snubbed by Mendelssohn, whom he admired, and seems to have been considered too innovative by more conservative professors. He was influenced by the music of Bach, Paganini, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, as well as Weber and Rossini. His career was perhaps handicapped by the lack of an obvious mentor or patron, though he published around 50 (of some 300) songs while in Berlin. He also composed sacred works. After Berlin, he returned to Switzerland for the remainder of his brief life, working as a teacher, composing little.

The scores for the quartets are in the library of the University of Basel, and the composer seems to have treated them as less significant than his other work. The time of their composition was not auspicious, given the dominance of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert, so their re-emergence on this pair of CDs is welcome. Some passages are a little derivative and technically imperfect, but one has a sense of experiment. Each of the four quartets is different in character, and, as the movement listing indicates, not just within movements, but in the overall form of the quartet. There is no slavishness here. Beethoven and Schubert both experimented, and there is here a similar sense of invention, if not always the same quality of final outcome. Yet the excitement is unmistakeable.

It is notable that Fröhlich does not always develop themes conventionally. Rather he often prefers to use variations. These are particularly obvious in the long first movement – and a very attractive one it is – of the G minor quartet, but both the first and third movements of the E minor show interesting developments and variations of themes. Fröhlich is confident in producing the unexpected moment – listen, for instance to the unconventional ending of the first movement.

This is music which embraces the less conventional aspects of the transition from the classical to the Romantic, and it is not out of place on one’s shelves with the Beethoven and the Schubert Quartets. If not quite in their class – and this music is not – it is not as far away as one might expect from the relative anonymity of the composer.

Performances are admirable in every respect. The Bern-based quartet treat the music with seriousness but also great élan. They clearly believe in it for the characterful music it is: there is nothing routine, but evident enthusiasm.

Michael Wilkinson



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