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Ferdinand PFOHL (1862-1949)
Strandbilder Op.8 (‘Beach Pictures’) (1892) [26:15]
Suite Élégiaque, Cinq morceaux pour piano Op.11 (1894) [42:10]
Hagbert. Nordische Rhapsodie nach einem thema von Edvard Grieg (1882) [17:55]
Jamina Gerl (piano)
rec. 2016, DLF Kammermusiksaal, Cologne
GRAND PIANO GP784 [86:20]

For those of us who like to search out the byways of classical music from the 19Th and 20th Centuries, it sometimes seems like we are living in a golden age. Month after month, year after year, a number of record companies, large and small, issue recordings of music by little known or totally forgotten composers. Indeed, there are so many, that unless one has a deep purse and a huge number of spare hours each day, it is impossible to keep up with the flow.

One such composer is Ferdinand Pfohl, a man who was far more known as a music critic. In later life he estimated that the total number of his reviews at up to 10,000 related to 100 new operas and 80 living composers. He also published biographical sketches of up-and-coming musicians and wrote a number of technical music books. He also became joint director of a Hamburg Conservatory, where he lectured on music as well as administrating the institution. He was born in 1862 in the Bohemian town of Loket, and despite starting out to study law, in 1885 he heard Parsifal, which changed him, and from that point on he was determined to devote himself to music. Parental support was not forthcoming, and to support himself he worked in Leipzig as critic for the Leipziger Tageblatt.

Since this was his only source of income, he was not exactly wealthy, and indeed, it was due to the sudden unexpected death of a respected music critic in Hamburg in 1892, that, on the recommendation of Hans von Bulow, Pfohl got the job of editor of the arts section of the Hamburger Nachrichten. This was a handsomely remunerated position, but it required a lot of work, which significantly reduced his time for composition.

Alas, it seems that his major orchestral work, A Sea Symphony, based on movements of the piano cycle Strandbilder (Beach Pictures) is lost. This is a great pity, because it received a fine initial performance in 1897, and was praised for its masterful orchestration.

The earliest work on this CD is his 18-minute Hagbart, described as Nordic Rhapsody on a theme of Grieg. Pfohl was 20 years old when he wrote it, and he greatly admired Grieg’s music. It rather sounds like Grieg could have composed it himself, which means that it is very easy on the ear and both rhythmically and melodically rich.

His style was to evolve significantly over the next few years, and the aforementioned Strandbilder show him as a burgeoning master of impressionistic tone-painting. For example, one of its movements – At the graveyard of the nameless, is a portrait of a graveyard on the island of Sylt in Northern Germany, where the bodies of sailors, washed up after shipwrecks, are buried. It begins with a sombre theme in a minor key, which morphs into the second theme, a more impassioned utterance, symbolising the restless search of the spirits of the unknown sailors for a final resting place. The opening movement of the piece – Sea Luminescense – Hunting the waves, is thematically memorable, as Pfohl represents the breaking waves with flurries of demisemiquavers, and their brilliance suggests the gleaming reflection of light on the sea. The whole twenty-six-minute work is thoroughly enjoyable and at times, quite memorable.

The latest work presented here dates from 1894, two years into his editorship of the Hamburger Nachrichten. It is his last work for piano, an Elegiac Suite. Five pieces for piano, lasting all of 42 minutes; a major statement. The movements are dedicated to women of Pfohl’s acquaintance. The pieces form a cycle through their compositional style and recurring motivic elements. Even so, there is a clear national element to some of the movements – Nordic in the Élegie, Bohemian in the dancing Scherzo Bohemien and colourful Russian folk-fantasy in the Fantasie Russe. The second movement has a memorable theme at its core, which in its rise and fall creates a rocking motion, and as it progresses is accompanied by a highly impressionistic underlying theme.

I have very much enjoyed the two major, more mature works on this well recorded, performed and extremely long CD. The booklet notes are informative, occasionally technical and plead Pfohl’s case eloquently. I think that this is one of the longest CD’s that I have ever encountered, outside the Blu-Ray Audio-only format.

It would be nice if Pfohl’s lost Sea Symphony were to come to light, because on the showing here, it could well prove to be a lovely piece.

Jim Westhead

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