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Emil FREY (1889–1946)
Piano Music - Volume One
Vier Klavierstüke, Op. 12: No. 2 Berceuse (1906) [3:32]
Vier Klavierstüke, Op. 20: No. 1 Humoreske (1911) [4:51]
Variationen uber ein Rumanisches Volkslied, Op. 25 (1910) [10:14]
Sonata dramatica, Op. 27 in D minor (1912-13) [26:46]
Kleine Slawische Suite, Op. 38 (1917) [9:46]
Suite No. 6, Op. 66: No. 4 Passacaglia (1933) [10:24]
Luisa Splett (piano)
rec. 18-20 March 2015, Schloss Britz, Berlin.

Prime Toccata territory again. Where would we be without this most adventurous and cobweb-defying label? Frey was born in Switzerland and was a student of Fauré and a friend of Enescu. The latter can be discerned in Frey's subtle Variationen uber ein Rumanisches Volkslied. He wrote much solo piano and chamber music but in manuscript there are also two symphonies as well as concertos for piano, for violin and for cello.

The broad-brush description of this music is late-Romantic but as ever such generalising swathes rarely do justice. The Berceuse is almost Medtnerian; indeed Frey spent some years in Russia. The Humoreske is strong on Brahmsian charm and polish. As for those Variations, they are faintly folk-like and have a sinuous Eastern European mystery. They are the most subtle work here: delicate yet not unconfident. Their delicacy is not to be mistaken for fragility and Frey ends the piece with a conventional yet effective rhetorical flourish.

The half-hour Sonata Dramatica is the 'big bill' item. It's in three movements which drip the nectar of grandiloquent romance. By and large the music of the first movement stays within these terms of reference but is prone on occasion to brief decorative asides. Unusually the central Largo Espressivo is the shortest movement as if saying 'let's get back to the grandeur as soon as possible'. This Frey duly does in the final Andante-Allegro con fuoco. The downbeat Andante episode makes for a smooth transition from the middle movement although the gear-change to Con Fuoco is not long delayed and when it happens comes unceremoniously and at the sprint. Soon we get those Eastern European accents again. This provides contrast amid all that dark whirlpooling fantasy in which Frey is steeped. The Sonata bids adieu with an accustomed high Romantic farewell.

The three movements of the Little Slav Suite comprise a bell-haunted Präludium, a confidently positive Mazurka and a trilling Kasatchok. Fifteen years - and a World War - later, the Passacaglia is unsmiling; no reason why it should smile but it doesn't. Its grandeur is one that finds mastery in the sombre and serious.

Luisa Splett is an articulate advocate and more than rises to the challenge. She also supplies the English-only essay which will serve as more than an encyclopaedic entry for Frey. There's nothing token about it as is invariably the case with Toccata: no short measures in timing or quality. The work that goes into these essays and the accomplishment should be recognised. Compilers of bibliographies neglect Toccata's composer essays at their peril.

No great revelations but there is no doubting that this is a well constructed recital with attention paid to a satisfying musical sequence even if it does end with that almost-glum Passacaglia. The downside for me is that three published sets (opp. 12, 20, 66) have been excerpted. While I know that such collections are not necessarily designed to be presented complete it still suggests cherry-picking and by implication there may yet be a volume two.

Rob Barnett



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