Notes and Editorial Reviews
Violin Sonatas: Nos. 1–3
Rainer Schmidt (vn); Saiko Sasaki (pn)
DIVOX 29806 (57:15)
This disc looked more than a little familiar to me when it arrived in the mail. Little wonder, it has been in my collection for more than 10 years. In alternate couplings offered on the same label, in which each of the sonatas is paired with its correspondingly numbered Brahms sonata in a series titled
Brahms and his Friends
, this same performance of Jenner’s
Sonata No. 1 was reviewed by David K. Nelson way back in
23:4. You can still acquire the three Jenner/Brahms combination discs separately, or, if you have more than enough versions of the Brahms sonatas in your collection, you can acquire this single disc with just the Jenner sonatas on it.
Gustav Uwe Jenner (1865–1920) could claim he was a descendant of Edward Jenner, the Scottish research scientist who discovered the smallpox vaccine. Gustav’s father, on the other hand, earned his reputation in a way less noble. A practicing physician, he committed suicide after being indicted for “playing doctor” with his female patients. But Gustav’s own most singular accomplishment, by far, was to survive seven years as a student—in fact, the only formal student—of Brahms. It’s a wonder that Jenner, like his father, didn’t kill himself, for Brahms berated and belittled him mercilessly. But then, as was characteristic of Brahms’s better nature, he made sure Jenner was well taken care of, arranging his appointment as secretary of the Vienna Tonkünstlerverein and then as music director and conductor at the University of Marburg—in other words, anything to keep him from composing.
One has to wonder how and why the ultra-critical Brahms put up with such an unpromising student for seven years, from 1888 to 1895. Jan Brachmann’s booklet note suggests that Brahms felt sorry for Jenner’s plight and wished to nurture and protect the boy. Perhaps Brahms saw in Jenner the son he never had and, like any good father, felt the need to impose self-discipline on the young man while at the same time encouraging him and building his self-confidence. According to Brachmann, Brahms helped Jenner in more ways than professionally, assisting him in finding affordable lodgings and offering him financial support. In any case, the one lesson Jenner seems to have taken most to heart from his years under Brahms’s tutelage was the requirement for uncompromising self-criticism, a fact reflected in Jenner’s modest output, which consists of fewer than a dozen chamber works, a handful of songs, and an orchestral serenade.
It’s either ironic or testament to Jenner’s unexceptional talent for composition that after seven years under Brahms’s wing the music written by the elder composer’s one and only formal student sounds less like Brahms than does the music by a number of other composers—Herzogenberg, for example—who were reasonably adept at imitating Brahms’s style. Oh, to be sure, there are the occasional flourishes, gestures, and turns of phrase that echo Brahms, but the four components missing in these Jenner sonatas are the melodic sophistication, the harmonic richness, the developmental complexity, and most of all, the rhythmic intricacy one finds in Brahms—in other words, everything.
This is not to say that Jenner’s three violin sonatas aren’t pretty. They make for an hour’s worth of pleasant listening and they’re beautifully played by Rainer Schmidt, second violin in the Hagen Quartet since 1987, and by pianist Saiko Sasaki. She comes with an impressive résumé, including a degree from the New England Conservatory, where she studied with Russell Sherman and participated in master classes with Tatiana Nikolayeva and Peter Serkin, among others.
I must admit, I’m still puzzled why this Divox CD, recorded between 1996 and 1999, and that must have been on the market for a dozen years (else, how did I come by it so long ago?), is only now arriving for review. Be that as it may, the music and the performances are enjoyable enough, and as the only official student of Brahms, Jenner is interesting enough as a historical curiosity to warrant a recommendation of this disc.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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