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Friedrich GERNSHEIM (1839-1916)
Piano Quintet No. 1 in D minor, Op. 35 (1875-76) [34:38]
Piano Quintet No. 2 in B minor, Op. 63 (1896) [30:09]
Art Vio String Quartet
Edouard Oganessian (piano)
rec. 2009, Studio Piano, Vilnius, Lithuania
First Recordings
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0099 [65:00]

I had my first encounter with the music of Friedrich Gernsheim when I reviewed a CD of his two violin concertos and Fantasiestück for violin and orchestra in 2016. The disc, on the German CPO label, was blessed with an especially extensive and highly informative set of sleeve-notes, and the present CD – not a new release - is similarly well-endowed, on both musical content and biographical detail. As far as the latter goes, it’s interesting to note that, at the tender age of eighteen, Gernsheim met the sixty-five-year-old Rossini in Paris, and Rossini’s advice at the time – “Voyez mon ami, l’essentiel dans la musique c’est la mélodie!” (“Observe, my friend, the essence of music lies in melody!”) – did have some real bearing on the younger man. There is certainly no shortage of melody in Gernsheim’s output, and in these two opulent piano quintets in particular.

Gernsheim’s two piano quintets were composed twenty years apart, the First in D minor dating from 1875-76. Not surprisingly, in the sleeve-notes, Malcolm MacDonald reflects on the fact that while it is contemporary with Brahms’s First Symphony, in these two quintets we are really listening to some fine examples of German romanticism, full of influences from Mendelssohn, Schumann, Bruch, and, of course, Brahms. The opening Allegro moderato is a powerful movement packed with lyricism and passion, and beautifully crafted for the medium. It feels as if it is going to close in the major, but an exciting coda keeps to the work’s home minor key until the very last minute before the final chords revert to D major which is, in fact, the key of the ensuing Andante molto cantabile slow movement, which, of course, is so very warmly expressive.

The scherzo – in G minor, and marked Vivace ed energico – is characterised by frantic dance rhythms and vibrant syncopations. There is a charming trio in the major key, where the tempo is significantly relaxed, creating an almost ballroom-like feel to the music. There has been a hint of fugal writing in the scherzo, which now receives far freer rein in the Allegro con brio finale. This starts almost as an excited dance-like fugue, all in rapid sprightly triplets, interspersed with some lovely lyrical melodies along the way, until the work’s exciting whirlwind close has the final say.

Gernsheim’s Second Piano Quintet was composed in 1896, and naturally his musical language had continued to develop over the intervening years. However, while there are now some occasional nods in the direction of Richard Strauss and Max Reger, it would be fair to say that whereas the idiom of the First Quintet was more cutting-edge at the time, the Second appears somewhat more conservative for a work from the 1890s. The basic floor-plan of the two quintets is similar, although there is a noticeably greater use of instrumental virtuosity in the Second Quintet’s opening Molto moderato. The Adagio slow movement has a greater depth of expression than the corresponding movement in the First, and there is almost a more symphonic feel to the writing, aided by the frequent use of tremolando effects. The Scherzo – Allegretto molto grazioso e sempre presto – once more introduces some effective fugal writing, but, unusually, there is no actual Trio as such, only a brief sideways step into C minor, which features a much-altered reprise of the opening of the movement. The exuberant finale, Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo presto, is a veritable tour de force for all performers, with a final denouement, marked Con fuoco (with fire), which so effectively brings this highly impressive Quintet to its dazzling and resolute conclusion.

As far as romantic Piano Quintets go, this pair by Friedrich Gernsheim must be right up there with the very best, and that’s not just works by equally less familiar names, but also by mainstream composers like Brahms and Schumann. Measured purely on melody, and the wealth of lovely tunes in both works, Gernsheim scores really highly, as he does, too, in terms of construction, development, and the effective and economical use of thematic material, something where some of his lesser-known contemporaries find some real difficulty.

Even the composer himself sometimes doubted whether composing, which apparently did not come easily to him, was worth all the trouble, especially when, as the son of a prominent Jewish physician, his ethnicity unfortunately would surely have hindered the promotion of his music.

When I reviewed his concertante works for violin and orchestra, I came to the conclusion that, while immensely pleasurable to listen to, they didn’t really stand out from the crowd, or have anything special, or truly individual to say. But I have always subscribed to the notion that two particular genres – the piano concerto and piano quintet – very often seem to bring out the very best in a composer’s output, and this is very much the case here.

The performances are absolutely second to none, and there is little, if any evidence to suggest that they were actually recorded over ten years ago. Granted, we now live in an age where more and more unfamiliar repertoire is being made available, something which can so easily cause market saturation, but this CD has so very much to commend it, and, if you were merely looking to hear some of Gernsheim’s music, you could do no better than make a start with his two Piano Quintets.

In a footnote to Rob Barnett’s review of another recording of the two quintets, a correspondent, Peter, replied to point out the existence of this present recording on the Toccata Classics label. He went on to say that Martin Anderson, who founded the label back in 2005, had once written to him, to say that this Gernsheim CD was one of the best discs Toccata had produced. When you consider the extremely impressive number of highly-acclaimed CDs that Toccata Classics has released over many years, there can scarcely be no greater accolade for this quite superb disc.

Philip R Buttall



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