As you get older you inevitably become acquainted with more and more music and composers. Thanks to the vision of the plethora of CD producers out there virtually every month’s new releases delights with new names from whichever musical era for which you have a particular penchant.
To this end, the excellent German CPO label is among the forerunners in seeking out interesting ‘new’ music from less-familiar composers right across the stylistic spectrum. One of their most recent ‘discoveries’ is fellow-countryman, Robert Kahn – certainly a prolific composer, though one whose name remains largely unknown.
Kahn was born in Mannheim, the third of eight children in a family that was both artistically cultured, affluent and socially prominent. He learnt to play the piano at the age of eleven or twelve, as well as having some violin lessons for a few years. Later, while studying in Berlin and Munich, his composition teachers included Friedrich Kiel, Woldemar Bargiel and Joseph Rheinberger – all somewhat peripheral composers nowadays. Still, they're probably better known than Kahn himself. It was the lessons he had from no less a personage than Brahms – who became a friend – that made the greatest impression on the young Kahn, rather than those he received at any conservatory. Indeed Brahms, and by association, Mendelssohn and Schumann, had the greatest effect on Kahn’s musical output and style.
In his time Kahn was a popular composer in Germany, but, with the advent of the Nazi regime, due to his Jewish origins, his music immediately dropped from favour. In December 1938 he wrote to his pupil and friend, pianist Wilhelm Kempff: ‘Everyone familiar with the current situation has advised us unanimously, and with some urgency, to emigrate!’ The following month he and his wife left Germany for England, and settled in the village of Biddenden, where he remained until his death in 1951. In the original German sleeve-note by Jakob Hauschildt, Biddenden is referred to incorrectly as being ‘im Südwesten Englands’, whereas J Bradford Robinson’s English translation corrects this to ‘southeast England’ – in fact not far from today’s entrance to the Channel Tunnel, in the Weald of Kent.
This 2-CD set features the composer’s four piano trios, recorded here in chronological order, the first appearing in 1893, the second 1900, the third 1902, and the fourth 1914, though not published until 1922. This puts each trio roughly contemporary with: Dvořák’s New World
Symphony – Puccini’s Tosca
– Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande
– and Ravel’s Piano Trio, respectively.
First and foremost, the music recorded here is highly melodic, exceptionally well-crafted, both structurally and in the writing for each instrument. It offers sufficient musical contrast and interest to make listening to all four trios a real pleasure and a totally undemanding task.
Kahn tinkers slightly with the overall construction – the first two trios being in a conventional three-movement (fast-slow-fast) design, the third prefacing the outer two fast movements with a slower introduction, and the last gaining two extra movements. The difference in harmonic language between the New World
and Ravel’s Piano Trio is immediately striking. However the same degree of progression is just nowhere evident from Kahn’s first to fourth trios, with which these works are contemporary.
Kahn is an anachronism, a well-intentioned and no doubt most-gifted composer, who just happened to be born about half-a-century too late. This has perhaps contributed to his, some might argue, unjust neglect. At worst this is entertaining Romantic salon music, though not without the academic rigours of some contrapuntal writing along the way. The Piano Trio No. 1
, like the other three, lacks a proper scherzo, although there are ‘scherzo’ elements to be found in the other movements. The sleeve-note hints at a possible reason for sticking with three movements on the whole: ‘Perhaps the restriction to three movements is a deliberately [sic]
throwback to the early years of the genre’. In passing, this unfortunately provides just one further example of CPO’s apparently less-than-perfect proof-reading, where English text is concerned.
The Piano Trio No.2
makes no significant advances on its predecessor, while No.3
, as mentioned above, includes slower introductions (1:39 and 3:27 respectively) to the outer movements. The Piano Trio No.4
was announced by the composer as ‘a sort of serenade’. Again, while it doesn’t quite set the world alight in terms of its language or structure, it is arguably the most interesting work in the present selection. It's also the longest by almost two minutes.
The Hyperion Trio clearly has a real empathy for, and belief in this music. The rich tone produced by its two string members is finely complemented by singing ‘cantabile’ playing from the piano.
If CPO could only address the weakness of the English translation in the otherwise quite informative sleeve-notes, then this would provide the icing on what is already a decidedly highly-sweetened confection. If you think that just so much sugar is bad for you, then you should probably avoid the music of Robert Kahn. However, if you just want to overindulge occasionally, then there is hardly any better comfort-food to choose from. As such, this reasonably-priced 2-CD set is decidedly appealing. The choice, as with a healthy diet, is largely yours.
Philip R Buttall