Gerhard FROMMEL (1906-1984)
Piano Sonata No. 4 in F major, Op. 21 (1943) [13:45]
Piano Sonata No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 35 (1951) [15:19]
Piano Sonata No. 6 in B flat major (1956) [18:11]
Piano Sonata No. 7 in C major (1966) [23:27]
Tatjana Blome (piano)
rec. Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich, December 6-8 2013
GRAND PIANO GP640 [70:40]
Here are four piano sonatas by the little-known Gerhard Frommel. This is the second of two discs by Tatjana Blome’s devoted to Frommel. Blome offers nuanced, at times powerful performances, getting the most out of these second-tier works. Brahms and Bartok can survive mediocre playing, but an unfamiliar composer like Frommel cannot, so Blome’s dextrous promotion does his work a great service.
The best of these four is probably the single-movement Piano Sonata No. 5. The work is rhythmically interesting, generally restive, with angular themes in a somewhat episodic version of sonata form. Harmonies are bland, although rather spicier than Sonatas 1-4, which he wrote before or during World War II. There are passages that aspire to sound “primitive,” but these angry poundings are not quite persuasive. Frommel finds evident pleasure in exploring what the keyboard can do, which is to say the music sounds “pianistic.”
Each of the other sonatas on this disc contains a movement of special interest. In Piano Sonata No. 4 this is the Siciliano, carried forward with an awkward yet charming Northern European gait. Similar Italianate impulses run throughout most of his sonatas. Piano Sonata No. 6 ends with a pentatonic rondo, which rolls along quite winningly, a little like a gamelan tamed and contained for European high art. Piano Sonata No. 7 opens with an Allegro that resembles Hindemith, although the Hindemith of three decades earlier, down to the flourishes which bring the movement to a close.
Peter Vogel’s notes attempt to explain the neglect of Frommel’s music by arguing that “because of its association with Fascism, tonal music, including Frommel’s, was ousted” by twelve-tone music. But this avoids the simpler issue: Frommel was in fact a fascist. We need not blame shifting aesthetic fashions to understand why many found Frommel repugnant or embarrassing after the war. A one-time Pfitzner student, Frommel joined Hitler’s party in 1933. His wartime service included teaching at an army music school in Frankfurt. He showed greater interest in Stravinsky than may have been ideal for a Nazi musician, although Stravinsky’s now forgotten early enthusiasm for fascism may have cushioned things. To be fair, there is little in these perky and pleasant sonatas that brings to mind the Third Reich. Indeed, the sunny Piano Sonata No. 4 impresses by its perverse avoidance of the world war raging beyond the Frankfurt band school. After the war, his music fell into disuse, not so much from neglect as from avoidance, as Nazis in all fields found that their prior politics ceased to be a career advantage.
We all believe at some level that music should speak for itself, but there remains the sticky extra-musical question of what one does with art created by people with dishonored politics. Personal choices come to the fore and we should be respectful of the intolerances we see in other listeners. It is not for me to tell Israeli concert-goers that they need to hear Wagner, although Daniel Barenboim brings his own credentials to this dispute. Herbert von Karajan, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, and Carl Orff still seem odious to some of us, long after their discredited politics have ceased to be a part of our world. It seems easier to have some compassion for the aged and dazed Strauss in his foolish effort to use the Nazis, but easier still to cheer Karl Amadeus Hartmann, whose values and music are both a lot more interesting than Frommel’s.
So, these pieces are not bad for Nazi music. They are modest in scale, conservative music that will not scare the horses. The notes sound as if they lay well beneath the fingers, and these fine performances are as good as we are likely to encounter. I will listen to some of the sonatas again, but in the end, cannot feel too bad that the world has mostly forgotten Frommel.