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Gernsheim: Violin Sonatas / Christian Starke

Release Date: 08/28/2012 
Label:  Brilliant Classics   Catalog #: 94403   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Friedrich Gernsheim
Performer:  Stefan KirpalAndreas Kirpal
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

GERNSHEIM Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-4. Andante. Introduction and Allegro appassionato. Fantasiestück • Stefan Kirpal (vn); Andreas Kirpal (pn) • BRILLIANT 94403 (2 CDs: 133:08)

GERNSHEIM Piano Quartets Nos. 1 and 3 • Stefan Kirpal (vn); Stephanie Krauß (va); Stephen Ristau (vc); Andreas Kirpal (pn) • BRILLIANT 93997 (67: 00)

In 34:1 I had the wonderful privilege of reviewing a CD containing the two magnificent piano quintets of Friedrich Gernsheim (1839–1916), brilliant works that immediately secured not only an entry for that CD on my 2010 Want List, but also a secure place in my affections for the composer. Since then I have acquired
Read more virtually every piece of his that has been recorded, though the number of recordings remains shockingly small for a figure of such considerable gifts: the four symphonies (recently added to Fanfare’ s Hall of Fame by Michael Carter); the orchestral tone poem Zu einem Drama ; the String Quartet No. 2; the Cello Concerto No. 1; the Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2; and the works under review here. Unlike some other lesser-known composers I have encountered, who made a great impression upon first exposure but did not consistently fulfill that promise on further acquaintance (e.g., Vít?zslav Novák), Gernsheim has never disappointed me or worn out his welcome; this is a major musical voice whose work demands restoration to the active performing repertoire. The works featured here merely add to the urgency of that demand.

These are all world premiere recordings. (My statement in my previous review that one violin sonata had previously been recorded was an error; it was the First Cello Sonata, played by Gayle Smith and John Jensen on an LP recording, Genesis GS 1060.) The earliest work in this set is the brief Andante from 1853, when the composer was only 14. It is a simple but appealing song-like piece, which the youth dedicated to his “dear Mama for Christmas.” That note piques one’s curiosity because the Gernsheims were Jewish—during the Third Reich the Nazis banned performances of the composer’s music and destroyed copies of his works held in German libraries. (I can find no biographical evidence to suggest that the Gernsheims followed the precedent of the Mendelssohns and converted to Christianity.)

The Violin Sonata No. 1 in C Minor, op. 4, was published in 1865. Here the influences of Mendelssohn and Schumann are evident, even if the music also already sounds somewhat like the young Brahms, although the two composers only became acquainted three years later. Despite being one of Gernsheim’s earliest published works, it is a thoroughly engaging piece that offers promise for the future. Somewhat unusually, it opens with a slow movement, an Andante con moto - Più lento , dominated by a somewhat melancholic theme. The ensuing Allegretto scherzando has a somewhat playful, skipping theme, though one that is relaxed rather than energetic. A similarity to Beethoven and Brahms comes most to the fore in the concluding Allegro, which brings to mind the finale of the latter’s G-Minor Piano Quartet, though Gernsheim’s thematic material is not based on any folk-song materials.

The one-movement Fantasiestück , op. 33, from 1876 shows the influence that Brahms had quickly come to exercise over Gernsheim, though the latter still retains his own distinctive voice. Marked Andante molto sostenuto , this very beautiful piece has the kind of soaring melodiousness that one finds in the comparable works for violin and orchestra of Max Bruch, and is notable for its exploitations of the violin’s upper register. By contrast, the Introduction and Allegro appassionato , op. 38, from 1879 has a less overtly Brahmsian character and has a closer kinship to Schumann instead. A slow opening section is succeeded by a faster main one, alternately lyrical and declamatory in character. While not as immediately striking as the Fantasiestück , it offers the soloist a greater range of virtuosic effects.

The Violin Sonata No. 2 in C Major, op. 50, dates from 1885, during Gernsheim’s 16-year tenure in Rotterdam from 1874 to 1890 as director of the Society for the Advancement of Musical Arts there. A work from the composer’s full maturity, it shows great advances in Gernsheim’s compositional technique over his previous effort, though the style becomes even more akin to Brahms. The first movement ( Allegro moderato ) opens with an extraordinarily beautiful theme, broad and noble, of symphonic character that is ably developed in classical sonata form. In the second movement ( Andante sostenuto ), the violinist and piano assume the roles of bardic harpers, with the former almost strumming rather than plucking the strings and the latter producing similar effects from the piano before they both turn to the main theme, one of Brahmsian introspection. The closing Allegro energico is even more like Brahms, with thematic material that calls to mind the scherzo of the great F Minor Piano Quintet. This is my personal favorite among the four sonatas.

Somewhat surprisingly for Gernsheim, the Violin Sonata No. 3 in F Major, op. 64, from 1898 moves somewhat farther away from the musical vocabulary of Brahms and closer to that of Schumann and Bruch. It is correspondingly lighter in tone, and also differs from the other sonatas in being laid out in four movements rather than three. The opening Allegro con brio unexpectedly belies its title with a sweet, sunny, open-hearted lyricism. However, the shadow of Brahms returns in the second movement scherzo, an Allegro agitato in standard A-B-A form with scampering outer portions sandwiching a brief contrasting trio section. A tenderly songful Andante molto espressivo follows; it has an opening theme of a Brahmsian cast, but otherwise goes its own way. The closing Moderato e sempre cantabile again runs counter to normal expectations by offering a relaxed finale that returns to the mood of the opening movement; I find the second subject, based on a dotted eighth note rhythm, an especially winning melody.

The Violin Sonata No. 4 in G Major, op. 85, dating from 1912, is more subtle and sophisticated in construction, more abstract and less immediately appealing in melodic content, albeit still attractive. It is also the least Brahmsian chamber work of Gernsheim that I have encountered, which suggests that the composer was trying here to test a different path. Titled Allegro moderato assai , the first movement begins with a theme that is perhaps a bit too much on the saccharine side, though balance returns with a contrasting dramatic second subject that could have come straight from Brahms’s pen. As its varying tempo markings— Andantino dolente—In moto giocoso ma ben marcato—Andantino dolente —suggest, the second movement is intended to comprise two strongly contrasted moods; it is however only slightly pensive and mildly good-humored, rather than truly dolorous and jocund. The closing Allegro con brio is the strongest part of the work, bringing the proceedings to an energetic and upbeat close.

The two-CD set of violin sonatas was recorded in 2011, and the disc of piano trios dates back to 2007, but was not reviewed then in these pages. Like the first violin sonata, the Piano Quartet No. 1 in E?-Major, op. 6, dates from 1865. Unlike that work, it shows an astonishingly mature mastery of formal structure. Its thematic content is quite Mendelssohnian in character; the three fast movements ( Allegro ma non troppo, Allegro vivace assai , and Allegro con brio ) have the bustling, vivacious energy of that composer’s marvelous Octet, and the slow third movement, Andante con moto , likewise has the same unpretentious serenity of its earlier counterpart. It is almost surely no accident that both works share the same key signature.

However, the quartet also has the greater emotional ardency and harmonic weightiness that one associates with Schumann. Also like Schumann, it has an exceptionally demanding piano part, with that instrument playing in virtually every measure, though Gernsheim’s compositional skills prevent it from overshadowing the other instruments or ever growing tiresome. This is music that positively teems with ebullient joy, and I cannot praise it highly enough.

The Piano Quartet No. 3 in F Major, op. 47, was composed in or around 1883, by which time Gernsheim had come decisively into the musical orbit of Brahms, though here the resemblance is a more general matter of style, as this work does not bear any similarity to the latter composer’s three essays in that genre. The opening Allegro tranquillo provides a gentle, almost bucolic introduction, whereas the succeeding Scherzo, marked Allegro energico e appassionato , opens with more vigor, but then subsides to a marvelously lyrical trio section, with the two contrasting aspects then alternating and tussling with one another to the movement’s close. A tranquil Andante cantabile offers an interlude of sweet repose before the piece closes with a brilliant Tema con Variazione finale that displays both the composer’s ingenuity and the performers’ dexterity to the full.

If Gernsheim does not quite have Brahms’s mastery of formal development, he does have instead longer-breathed and more ardent melodies with a more singing character, which have their own distinctive character and appeal. Likewise, he is also less introverted and melancholic, more sunny and open-hearted. Obviously, he is not a highly original composer; but as I have said before, originality should not be pursued as an end in itself, but rather will result on its own from the pursuit of quality craftsmanship pursued with integrity (which also precludes slavish imitation). Gernsheim’s music largely fulfills that criterion, and if Brahms did not exist we might well be looking upon him (along with Bruckner) as the finest non-operatic Germanic composer of the period 1860-1890.

As for the performances, those of the violin sonatas are excellent and leave little to be desired. Stefan and Andreas Kirpal are brothers, and their mutual dedication to Gernsheim’s cause is evident. Occasionally Stefan’s tone is less than ideally sweet in softer passages, and the intonation of a very few notes is not quite dead center; also, the playing in the finale of the third sonata is a bit foursquare, and the tempo likewise a bit too slow. I would be interested in hearing what a world-class violinist such as Frank Peter Zimmermann might bring to this music instead. But, given the great unlikelihood of that transpiring, I am most grateful to the Kirpals for restoring to our ears this lovely and unjustifiably neglected music. The performances of the piano quartets are even better, being nothing short of outstanding. Violist Stephanie Krauß and cellist Stephen Ristau are members, with Stefan Kirpal, of the Diogenes Quartet. (Gundula Kirpal, sister to Stefan and Andreas, is the ensemble’s second violinist; she does not play in either of these releases.) Both have rich, almost buttery, sound palettes that create a full instrumental sound ideal for this music, and the performances are splendidly impassioned and inspired. Only the 2007 publication date prevents this release from being a 2013 Want List contestant.

The recorded sound is just slightly on the warm and resonant side. The contents of the set could have been more logically, and chronologically, ordered; there is no reason for the fourth sonata to precede the third sonata on the second disc, and the early Allegro should have been placed on the first disc before the first sonata instead of at the end of the second disc. But this is a very minor quibble; let us hope that Brilliant Classics has the wisdom to continue its exploration of Gernsheim with the Kirpals and the Diogenes Quartet by bringing us the Piano Trio No. 2, the string quartets, and the cello sonatas. Strongly recommended to all lovers of Romantic era chamber-music repertoire.

FANFARE: James A. Altena
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Works on This Recording

Introduction and Allegro appassionato for Violin and Piano, Op. 38 by Friedrich Gernsheim
Performer:  Stefan Kirpal (Violin), Andreas Kirpal (Piano)
Sonata for Violin and Piano no 1 in C minor, Op. 4 by Friedrich Gernsheim
Performer:  Stefan Kirpal (Violin), Andreas Kirpal (Piano)
Sonata for Violin and Piano no 2 in C major, Op. 50 by Friedrich Gernsheim
Performer:  Stefan Kirpal (Violin), Andreas Kirpal (Piano)
Fantasiestück, Op. 33 by Friedrich Gernsheim
Performer:  Stefan Kirpal (Violin), Andreas Kirpal (Piano)
Sonata for Violin and Piano no 4 in G major, Op. 85 by Friedrich Gernsheim
Performer:  Stefan Kirpal (Violin), Andreas Kirpal (Piano)
Sonata for Violin and Piano no 3 in F major, Op. 64 by Friedrich Gernsheim
Performer:  Stefan Kirpal (Violin), Andreas Kirpal (Piano)
Andante for Violin and Piano by Friedrich Gernsheim
Performer:  Stefan Kirpal (Violin), Andreas Kirpal (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1853 

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