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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Alexander Ernst FESCA (1820-49)
Septets – No. 1 in C minor, Op. 26; No. 2 in D minor, Op. 28.
Recorded in the South West German Radio Studios, Stuttgart on November 9th-11th, 1999. [DDD]
CPO 999 617-2 [69.56]

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The piano septet is a form which never really took off in the sphere of Romantic chamber music, and we are indebted to CPO once again for their exploratory approach to recorded repertoire. Furthermore, Fesca is hardly a household name, so it is good that CPO have offered this disc at ‘special price’, encouraging the record buyer to make the leap.

It is, indeed, worth taking the risk and trying this disc, for Fesca’s music is fresh, well-crafted and delightful. Do not look for anything deep, and you will not be disappointed. Possibly because of Fesca’s easy-going gait, I personally found it difficult to listen to both septets one after the other. They are best enjoyed one at a time, perhaps as an apéritif to an extended listening session (they both last just over half and hour).

Alexander Fesca studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in Berlin (1834-7). His life-span was cruelly short: he died at the age of 28. Nevertheless, he left quite a body of music, including over 120 songs, six piano trios, four string quartets and several stage works. Robert Schumann, reviewing some of Fesca’s early piano pieces in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, wrote that these pieces, ‘even if not manifesting a unique power and view of art, all contain within a fresh seed of life’. This comment seems to apply just as aptly to the Septets. In a refreshing burst of honesty from a programme-note writer, Bert Hagels in the accompanying booklet to this disc writes that the two septets, ‘are certainly not among the outstanding chamber works of the nineteenth century, but to cite a reviewer of those times, they nevertheless belong to the ‘field of higher, nobler entertaining music’’.

Never let it be said that a minor key necessarily implies depth or Sturm und Drang, therefore. These qualities are notably absent from Fesca’s musical vocabulary in these pieces, replaced by a marked approachability.

Both septets are scored for piano, oboe, horn, violin, viola, cello and double-bass. The first, in C minor, dates from 1842. The first movement exudes a sense of fun, and the players of the Linos-Ensemble play with a youthful vigour entirely appropriate to this. In particular, the pianist (Konstanze Eickhorst) plays the myriad scales and arpeggios glowingly and winningly. Only her chordal work seems weak, needing a fuller tone at times.

There seems not to be a weak link amongst the Linos-Ensemble, with much expressive playing in the Andante con moto. The cellist (Mario Blaumer) is worthy of special mention for his lyrical, singing line in the Trio of the Scherzo. The problem, compositionally, comes with the finale. When Fesca tries to be too dramatic, his invention becomes decidedly thin and the nine-minute duration of this movement is, admittedly, wearing. The major recompense comes in the shape of the pianist's superb contributions towards the close, with their admirably controlled left hand figuration.

The D minor Septet followed close on the heels of the first. Sharing the same instrumentation, being similarly in a minor key and being so soon afterwards, it is inevitable that there will be a certain sameness between the two: even the tempo marking of the first two movements is identical. This does not quell the flames of the Linos Ensemble's enthusiasm, however. The spirited exchanges of the first movement are a joy to hear: indeed, I get the impression that these pieces may well be even more fun to play than to listen to. The finale has a gypsy/folksy element to it which is most affecting.

The Linos’s sense of ensemble is impeccable, whether they are exchanging phrases or playing fortissimo chords absolutely together. Their enthusiasm is infectious. CPO’s recording is clear, well-balanced and non-interventionist.

Colin Clarke

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