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Friedrich GERNSHEIM (1839-1916)
String Quartet No.3, Op.51 in F major [30.13]
String Quartet No.1, Op.25 in C minor [35.51]
Diogenes Quartet
rec. 2017, Himmelfahrtskirche, München-Sendling, Germany
CPO 777 387-2 [66.36]

This is a most welcome issue, one to be explored by anyone with a serious interest in the music of its time. Once again, CPO puts us in the company’s debt, by its ceaseless commitment to the often hidden treasures of music.

I was very much impressed by the label’s issues of Gernsheim’s symphonies (review ~ review), and no less by the Piano Quintets (review). I confess I have heard neither the recording of the violin concertos nor the cello sonatas on the same label, and I have yet to explore the recording of solo piano works on Toccata.

The impression left by the relatively limited number of recordings is perhaps of a composer with something to say, but with something less than the giants of German music. That assessment is probably about right, but the excellent does not – or should not – blind us to the merits and insights of the very good; and, as a composer, Gernsheim is very good indeed, and often, as in these works, much better than that. There are composers, such as his friend Bruch, popularly known for one masterwork: Gernsheim demonstrates mastery again and again. He has a distinctive and attractive voice in a late nineteenth century idiom; very much his own sound, clear and eager to communicate. His technique is secure, his command of colour always interesting and intriguing. There is a depth which repays careful attention, and he passes easily the test of yielding up more treasure on repeated listening.

His mastery certainly includes the string quartet. It is one of those useful and revealing oversimplifications to say that while the voice of the symphony is generally declarative, that of the quartet is conversational and intimate. And it is that voice which Gernsheim captures so well. The quartets follow the usual four-movement form, but each of the eight movements on this recording have their own distinctive character. The final movement of Quartet no. 3 is a theme and variations, while that of the C minor Quartet is a Hungarian rondo, full of dash and culminating with an exciting prestissimo. In both quartets there is a sense of both concentration and forward movement, a feeling that the music is going somewhere and not meandering for effect. But the incidental beauties are considerable. Take for example the meltingly lovely Andante molto cantabile which forms the third movement of the op.51, unobtrusively moving from A major to A minor, and from A-flat-major through B-flat-major to a final A-major, while never for a moment losing the development of the theme eloquently sounding through the whole movement. The effect is ravishing.

The Diogenes are a wonderfully accomplished quartet, whose set of the complete Schubert Quartets (Brilliant Classics 94468) is one of the finest on the market. Their concentration and dedication to the Gernsheim pieces never wavers. Their performances have a splendid spaciousness and humanity. Note values are never rushed, yet the momentum is sustained.

Production values are, as always from CPO, very high, with excellent recording and detailed and informative notes. The point is rightly made that Gernsheim’s reputation was damaged by the Nazi ban on performances of Jewish music, and that he has not made his way back into the post-war concert halls. If these recordings go some way to restore his reputation, that would be wonderful. There is no doubt that he was touched by genius – talents on wonderful display here.

Michael Wilkinson

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