Friedrich Gernsheim: Piano Quintet No. 1 In D Minor, Op. 35; Piano Quintet No. 2 In B Minor, Op. 63
GERNSHEIM Piano Quintets: No. 1 in d , op. 35; No. 2 in b , op. 63 • Edouard Oganessian (pn); Art Vio Qrt • TOCCATA TOCC 0099 (64:21)
One of the great joys of initial acquaintance with the standard classical-music repertoire is the thrill of that first personal encounter with one masterpiece after another. And while that repertoire is and should not be static—pieces within and without it require periodic re-evaluation—it exists precisely because there are masterworks of superlative excellence that set standards by which all other works are measured. Beyond those confines, a law of diminishing returns sets in; most music that is lesser or little known is such for the very good reason that it is of inferior quality. Nevertheless, pursuing acquaintance with works outside the canon is both a necessity and a pleasure; it avoids complacency and routine, broadens and deepens the mind, provides context for the standard repertoire, and offers enjoyment of the very real merits of such lesser works on their own terms. Above all, it gives the rare opportunity to reexperience that initial youthful thrill, when one stumbles across unjustly neglected compositions that deserve, even demand, recognition as true masterworks and inclusion in the standard repertoire.
For me, a very short list of such neglected masterworks includes the third and fourth symphonies of Alberic Magnard and the opera Risurezzione of Franco Alfano. I will now risk sticking my neck out even further and add to that list the two quintets recorded here for the first time. Friedrich Gernsheim (1839–1916) was previously a completely unknown name to me, and I suspect to most people reading this review as well. In my case, at least, that has now changed, and exploring more of his works will be a top musical priority. Other recordings of Gernsheim pieces currently in print include his cello concerto (reviewed unenthusiastically by Peter J. Rabinowitz in Fanfare 30:6), his three piano quartets and four symphonies, one of his five string quartets, and two of his four piano trios; a violin sonata once appeared on LP as well.
These two pieces were composed 20 years apart, completed in 1876 and 1896, respectively; both are cast in the traditional four-movement sequence with the scherzo in third position. If they are true indicators of Gernsheim’s oeuvre as a whole, then the existing dismissive verdict of him as a pedantic imitator of Brahms is a great injustice. (Anti-Semitism also worked against Gernsheim’s posthumous reputation, as the Nazis systematically removed copies of his works from German libraries and destroyed them.) Without question his thematic material, harmonic language, rhythmic patterns, and instrumentation—even his transitional cadences and successions of key signatures—are all remarkably similar to those of Brahms. For example, the unison opening of the D-Minor Quintet immediately recalls that of Brahms’s F-Minor Piano Quintet, while the energetic, folkdance-based Scherzo is obviously inspired by the finale of his G-Minor Piano Quartet. Likewise, several transitional passages in the opening Molto moderato of the B-Minor Quintet remind one of counterparts in the opening Maestoso of Brahms’s D-Minor Piano Concerto (though the following Adagio suggests an affinity with Dvo?ák as well). However, the stylistic relation between the two composers is that of fraternal twins, rather than of an original versus a doppelgänger ; the fundamental family resemblances do not negate Gernsheim’s real and substantial originality. One noteworthy difference between them is that, even more so than Brahms, Gernsheim uses a principle of continuous development and progressive variation, wherein recapitulated thematic materials do not simply recur in their original forms but mutate into new guises. Gernsheim also more often allows the first violin and cello to sing out freely in cantabile solos, providing much-needed contrast to the frequently dense full-ensemble passages. Indeed, his musical style is best described as a synthesis of the Brahmsian elements noted above with the rhapsodic exuberance and freedom of Schumann (whose E?-Major Piano Quintet also makes its influence felt here).
Pianist Edouard Oganessian (of Armenian descent but Russian-trained) and the Art Vio Quartet (a Lithuanian ensemble) make a wonderful team, playing with rich, weighty, and yet luminescent tone and superb ensemble balance and interplay. The recorded sound is full and spacious but not reverberant; the instruments are closely miked but not oppressively so. The booklet offers exceptionally informative program notes, including detailed analyses of each movement in both works.
With this CD, that initial youthful thrill of discovery is back; Romantic chamber music simply doesn’t get any better than this. It is definitely a keeper for a 2010 Want List entry, and has my most urgent recommendation for you to make it a priority acquisition.
FANFARE: James A. Altena
Catalog Number: TOCC0099
Label: Toccata Classics
Composer: Friedrich Gernsheim
Performer: Edouard Oganessian