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Johanna SENFTER (1879-1961)
Violin Sonata in G Minor, Op.32 [28:42]
Violin Sonata in A Major, Op.26 [25:40]
Suite for 2 Violins, Op.91 No.1 [18:45]
Suite for 2 Violins, Op.91 No.2 [16:54]
Friedemann Eichhorn (violin)
Alexia Eichhorn (violin)
Paul Rivinius (piano)
rec. 2007, MDR Studio, Leipzig

The name Johanna Senfter is likely to be new to most people seeing that a quick search for her music in the catalogues only seems to feature on a handful of recordings. The apparent neglect of her music is seemingly due to her apparent rejection of the modern idiom, something that blighted the careers of more than one composer, and also the fact that she was a woman didn’t help her situation.

Johanna Senfter was born, and would ultimately die, in the town of Oppenheim am Rhein, a town mainly known for wine production. She was encouraged by her parents, who had identified her musical ability at an early age, and she entered the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt am Main, where she studied composition under Iwan Knorr and violin with Alfred Hess and Adolf Rebner, the later having taught Hindemith and had been a member of his string quartet for a while. After completing her studies in Frankfurt, Senfer approached Max Reger with a view of becoming a member of his composition class in Leipzig. Reger originally accepted her as a private student, later allowing her to join his class, stating that she had “exceptional gifts as a composer”. Reger enthused about Senfter and even after she had completed her studies with him, he would encourage and advise her, becoming a friend of the family, it was he who persuaded her to work on the early Op.6 Violin Sonata, which would become her work for the final examination in Leipzig.

Johanna Senfter was a gifted violinist and the violin would be central to her compositional output, although she did compose in most genres of music apart from opera. Her first published work was her first (of three) violin concerto, whilst if you include the Kleine Sonata she went on to compose six sonatas for violin and piano, with the two included here being her second and third. Whilst Senfter did not date her works, it seems that recent research as suggested a date for the Op.26 to be between 1914 and 1918, whilst the Op.32 was probably composed 1917 to 1918. The sonatas have a deep romanticism that was at odds with the new music of the day, this might be the reason for the delayed premiere of the A minor Sonata which happened on the 18th March 1924. The music is lush and melodic and shows the contrapuntal influence of her teacher Max Reger, with both being in the classic four movement structure, with other influences also being felt. For example, the opening Mäßig rasch movement of the G minor Sonata has piano writing that is “Brahmsian” in character, over which the expressive violin part plays, whilst the final movement opens simply enough with a song like melody before it is exposed to a series of variations of different temperaments. The earlier Sonata in A opens with a lovely lilting violin melody, which despite the time signature of “very slow”, it has a quite happy character, one which, as the booklet notes suggests, shows parallels with the A Major Sonata of Brahms. This is further enhanced by the more passionate and slower second movement which despite it being designated as “cheerful not fast”, acts as a traditional slow movement, with some lovely melodic writing. The third movement is as suggested by “Rasch”, the quickest of the four movements, with some wonderful interplay between the violin and piano. Here, the dance-like main theme is punctuated with more intense passages which keeps the listener interested in the music. The final movement returns us to the more leisurely feel of the first movement and rounds off this Sonata well.

The second disc introduces us to what I think is Johanna Senfter’s only work for two violins, well it certainly seems that way when you do some research into her compositional catalogue. Originally described as Ten Alte Tänze, or Ten Early Dances, they once again show the influence of Reger, who liked to compose modern works in an ancient manner. It was the composer who changed the title, dividing them into what she described as two “Groups” of five pieces. They do show their allegiance to the music of an earlier age, as the names of the individual pieces clearly show, with the first Suite being more traditional in its makeup, whilst the second Suite introduces different dances than are usually featured and points to a liking of French baroque dance form with the likes of a Bourrée and a Passepied en rondeau being included. These highly contrapuntal pieces, however, can only have been composed in one century, the twentieth, as they seem to have their impetus in the neo-classical movement and could even be described as neo-baroque. Although indebted to an earlier age they are purely music of its time; there is an occasional bitterness that only comes with music of this period, whilst the writing for two violins shows an intricacy and inventiveness that will please any follower of violin music of the last hundred years.

The playing throughout this set is beautifully shaped, especially in the slow movements of the two violin sonatas, with Friedemann Eichhorn and Paul Rivinius forming a wonderful partnership. The same can be said of the second disc when Eichhorn is joined by Alexia Eichhorn, with here the music bringing out the very best from both musicians. This is very interesting and at times complex music, but all three performers play wonderfully well and certainly left me wanting to hear more music by this neglected composer. Their playing is helped by a sympathetic acoustic which helps the performers get the most from the works, whilst the recording is detailed and clear. The booklet notes by Wolfgang Birtel are are very good, with a brief introduction to the composer followed by descriptions of the works. Indeed, my only gripe about this release regards the length, surely another of the sonatas could have been included, but as it is I am thankful to Paladino Music for providing us with a chance to hear this music. I only hope that Paladino Music allow Eichhorn and friends to record more of this interesting composer’s music, as I for one would rush out and buy it.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank