Friedrich GERNSHEIM (1839-1916)
Piano Quintet No. 2 in B Minor, Op. 63 [29:58]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 [40:56]
Reiko Uchida (piano)
Formosa Quartet (Jasmine Lin, violin; Wayne Lee, violin; Che-Yen Chen, viola; Ru-Pei Yeh, cello)
rec. 10-13 September 2014, University of Chicago
DELOS DE3497 [71:25]

Friedrich Gernsheim was a composer of symphonies, as well as chamber and other music, broadly in the German romantic tradition. He is not given an entry in the 2012 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, yet he was known to Brahms who admired his music. Because of Gernsheim’s Jewish heritage, his music predictably joined the works of many other artists in being banned by the Nazi regime as ‘degenerate art’. Nowadays, the public may get to know him through fine recordings of some of his music, including the symphonies (Vol. 1 ~ Vol. 2).

Delos’ liner notes, apparently written by the Quartet’s leader, Jasmine Lin, credit Gernsheim’s Piano Quintet No. 2 with offering “a unique sound world containing more spontaneity of gesture and harmony than many of its contemporary works. Its language, born of a line of German composers, evokes a vastness, a landscape of lofty open spaces that at times seems to transcend its country of origin.”

The work has been recorded previously by Oliver Triendl and the Gémeaux Quartett on CPO (review). My impression, as a newcomer to this music, is that Reiko Uchida and the Formosa Quartet convey well those qualities of dark-hued central-European romanticism that the quoted words might lead one to expect. They achieve this with technically assured playing which displays vigour and warmth. Those who love the Brahms Quintet will enjoy this work and want to hear it again before too long.

It’s clear, however, when we move on to the Brahms, with its arresting, even menacing opening theme, that we are in the hands of a greater master. Performances of this work tend to fall somewhere between two poles: the relatively swift, classical style favoured by Rudolf Serkin and the Busch Quartet in their pre-war EMI recording, and the more expansive, emotionally probing approach adopted by both Clifford Curzon and the Amadeus Quartet (BBC) and Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet (Andromeda).

Richter and the Borodin are probably the gold standard for performances of this work. “Absolutely magnificent … This is a performance in a thousand … It must be heard”, said the long defunct EMG Monthly Letter of the Saga LP issue. The Penguin Guide published in 1982 spoke in similar terms. It’s frustrating, then, that the Andromeda CD no longer seems to be available. I’ve therefore elected to compare Uchida/Formosa with Curzon/Amadeus (a 1974 live performance) and a performance by Leif Ove Andsnes and the Artemis Quartet on Virgin (review).

Overall, the Curzon/Amadeus performance from the Royal Festival Hall is the most expansive of the three; Andsnes/Artemis is the swiftest and Uchida/Formosa is a little more expansive than the latter. In the opening Allegro non troppo, Uchida/Formosa adopt a steady speed which maintains a firm grip on the structure and does not slight the emotional content. Andnes/Artemis choose a slightly swifter basic tempo, yet make slight, subtle tempo variations which convey very well the expressive content of the music. Curzon/Amadeus are only a few seconds slower than Uchida/Formosa but seem to have a slight advantage in power and expression over the other two.

Uchida/Formosa achieve much poetic subtlety in the Second Movement’s beautiful Andante, un poco adagio. Andsnes/Artemis seem more direct than they are in the First Movement, but do not lose repose. Curzon/Amadeus allow themselves a minute longer than their rivals and for those who love ‘heavenly’ slow movements, the results are irresistible.

The honours (and tempos) are about even in the Scherzo: Allegro. Perhaps Uchida/Formosa have the slightest edge over Andsnes/Artemis in terms of great urgency and drama, while Curzon/Amadeus offer the most emphatic, dramatic conclusion.

In their portentous handling of the Finale’s Poco sostenuto, Curzon/Amadeus establish a sense of foreboding which I don’t quite find in the other two performances. But in the following Allegro all three bring great power and excitement. None of the protagonists fail to make an impact with the conclusion, one of music’s most dramatic, but Curzon/Amadeus offer the most tumultuous rendition of all. The instant it finishes, cheering erupts from the Royal Festival Hall audience.

I would say that the secret of the Curzon/Amadeus performance lies in the fact that (stimulated by the presence of an audience) the players make full use of the ‘elbow-room’ their relatively expansive tempos provide.

In terms of sound, both Uchida/Formosa and Andnes/Artemis have modern, realistic, rather close studio sound, but the internal balance is convincing in both recordings. The Curzon/Amadeus recording, while several decades old, remains excellent: warm, in its concert hall way, rather than close. Perhaps a little more cello could have been heard at times, but there are no serious balance problems.

To sum up, in their Brahms offering, Uchida/Formosa and Delos have given us a modern performance and recording of excellence. The pairing with an impressive performance of a relatively unfamiliar work brings an added enticement. This issue will provide lovers of romantic music with many rewards.
Rob W McKenzie

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