Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 1 in g,
No. 3 in c,
op. 54, “Miriam”
Hermann Bäumer, cond; Mainz PSO
CPO 777758 (78:00)
In 35:5 Michael Carter placed in the
“Classical Hall of Fame” an Arte Nova set of the four symphonies of Friedrich Gernsheim (1839–1916), with Siegfried Köhler conducting the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz. Until now these
were the only recordings ever made of Gernsheim’s symphonies. Now, with a different orchestra from the same Rhineland district, under the baton of Hermann Bäumer, CPO offers the first half of a competing Gernsheim cycle, pairing the composer’s two symphonies composed in minor keys. Those readers of
who peruse my reviews will already be aware that I am as passionate an advocate for the music of Gernsheim as I am for that of Théodore Gouvy. Both are what I would term top-drawer second-tier composers; while not quite peers of Schumann or Brahms, they nonetheless rank immediately beneath and very close to them in merit, being equal or superior to better-known figures such as Max Bruch. Thus, any recording that expands the all-too-slender Gernsheim discography is most welcome.
While Gernsheim’s mature compositional voice (as I have noted in previous reviews of his music) bears a marked likeness to that of Brahms, the influences of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann are also quite evident, as is a kinship to Bruch. This is particularly evident in Gernsheim’s First Symphony, which along with the third was composed and premiered in Rotterdam during the composer’s tenure there as Music Director of the city’s Philharmonic Society. Written in 1875, a year before Brahms’s First Symphony saw the light of day, it winningly melds the dramatic urgency of Beethoven, the melodic fluency of Mendelssohn, and the romantic ardor and harmonic richness of Schumann. The opening
clearly bears the fingerprints of the
Overture, while the succeeding
suggests the direction in which Mendelssohn likely would have developed had he lived a decade or more longer. The energetic
Allegro moderato assai
, particularly the former, show that Gernsheim and Bruch flowed out of the same Rhineland musical tributary. However, if Bruch’s gorgeous melodies are more immediately appealing, Gernsheim’s superior grasp of trio and sonata forms gives his four symphonies a cogency and staying power that Bruch’s three undistinguished essays in the genre lack.
By contrast, Gernsheim’s Third Symphony, dating from 1887, displays a far greater affinity to Brahms, particularly the latter’s Second and Third symphonies. That said, it must be emphasized that the affinity is not one of mere imitation; while the relation is evident, Gernsheim is definitely his own man, and no knowledgeable listener would mistake this work for one by Brahms instead. Notable is the subtle but clear incorporation of a French influence from Saint-Saëns, with whom Gernsheim became friends during his years of study in Paris from 1855 to 1860. The Third Symphony is unique among Gernsheim’s instrumental works in having an extra-musical program. In an article written for the
Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums
(General Journal of Jewry), the composer related how, as a Jewish youth of 14 pursuing musical studies in Leipzig, he was powerfully impressed by a performance of Handel’s oratorio
Israel in Egypt
, particularly the celebratory hymn of Miriam at the end, and was subsequently motivated to write this work: “Miriam’s, or rather her people’s, suffering inspired my conception of this piece.” Its four movements are subtitled “In der Knechtschaft” (In Bondage), “Mirjam’s Gesang” (Miriam’s Song), “Die Flucht” (The Escape), and “Freiheit: Sieges- und Freudengesänge” (Freedom: Songs of Victory and Joy). The opening
Allegro ma non troppo
is “an expression of the repression and bondage, interspersed with a few moments of light and hope.” The succeeding
depicts Miriam herself; “distressed by the suffering of her people, she confides her pain but also her hope in the stars.” A brief
scherzo movement portrays the nighttime flight of the Israelites from Egypt, and in the concluding
Allegro con brio
“freedom is finally achieved. Songs of victory and joyfulness fill the air.”
How do these performances compare to the preceding ones by Köhler? While both are meritorious, I would give Köhler preference. Admittedly, CPO has the richer recorded sound (though that on Arte Nova is perfectly fine), and the orchestra sounds a bit more robust and polished. Both conductors clearly understand and are devoted to Gernsheim’s music. In terms of pacing, the difference is not so great as to be a decisive factor. Bäumer is slightly slower than Köhler except in the Scherzo of the Third Symphony, with the most noticeable difference occurring in the slow movements. Additionally, in the First Symphony, Bäumer takes an exposition repeat that Köhler does not in the opening movement, which in conjunction with a slightly slower tempo accounts for the major difference in timing of 15:26 versus 10:01. Both conductors have good ears for orchestral balances. Where Köhler establishes overall superiority, however, is in achieving a greater sense of urgency and taut forward impetus, and in maintaining a greater degree of continuity to the melodic line. Under Köhler’s baton, phrases flow seamlessly into one another, whereas Bäumer punctuates them with momentary breath marks that make them sound a bit choppy instead. These differences allow Köhler to create a superior sense of momentum and overarching sense of unity for the musical structures.
If Bäumer were the only alternative available, I would be delighted to have him, and any fellow Gernsheim devotees should not hesitate to acquire this disc. But for anyone who has room or appetite for only one set, Köhler is the superior choice for interpretation. I also prefer the program notes in the Arte Nova release, which quote Gernsheim’s program for the Third Symphony in full and are clearly written, whereas the more technically detailed notes offered by CPO only provide snippets from that program and are cast in turgid Germanic professorial prose. Finally, as a clincher, Arte Nova’s budget price for its two-CD set of all four symphonies is less than the cost of this single CPO disc containing only two symphonies. Nevertheless, this is a worthy release, and I await its sequel with anticipation.
FANFARE: James A. Altena
Works on This Recording
Symphony No. 1 in G minor ("Seiner theueren Mutter"), Op. 32 by Friedrich Gernsheim
Venue: Frankfurter Hof, Mainz
Length: 44 Minutes 17 Secs.
Symphony No. 3 in C minor ("Mirjam"), Op. 54 by Friedrich Gernsheim
Venue: Frankfurter Hof, Mainz
Length: 32 Minutes 13 Secs.
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 32: I. Allegro moderato
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 32: II. Larghetto
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 32: III. Scherzo
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 32: IV. Finale: Allegro moderato assai
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 54, "Mirjam": I. Allegro ma non troppo
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 54, "Mirjam": II. Molto adagio
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 54, "Mirjam": III. Molto vivace
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 54, "Mirjam": IV. Allegro con brio
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