Friedrich Gernsheim (1839-1916) was one of many composers who seem to have left a mark on his native Germany in his day, but who has subsequently been more or less forgotten. A certain comeback was achieved in the late 90s when Arte Nova released his four symphonies, which revealed a first-rate craftsman with plenty of strong ideas, resourcefulness and imagination if not, perhaps, a really original voice. More of his music has appeared over the following years, exploring in particular his chamber music (where he is generally thought to have made his most important contributions). On the disc at hand members of the Diogenes Quartett and Andreas Kirpal give us spirited readings of his first and third piano quartets, and they are very welcome additions to the record catalogue.
The third piano quartet, which opens the disc, was written in 1883 and strongly influenced by the chamber works of his friend Brahms (though more than Brahms, Gernsheim appears to write for four separate instruments to play together, rather than for one ensemble). It is a really enjoyable work with an eventful opening Allegro tranquillo, an almost relentlessly ebullient scherzo, a calm and dreamlike slow movement and an imaginative final Tema con Variazioni that sounds much more like a unified argument than the variations form might suggest. Few of the themes really stick in the listeners mind, admittedly, but there is little chance of a fan of, say, Brahms's chamber music being anything but pleased and impressed by this overall very fine work.
The first quartet, completed in 1864, was among the composer's first major works, and the style is much closer to Mendelssohn with a touch of Schumann. The first movement is particularly impressive, eventful and exciting, full of atmosphere and color. The raging scherzo is thrilling as well, and the slow movement provides an island of calm reflection - though it is admittedly less impressive than the surrounding movements. The finale is cheeky and brilliant with plenty of energy (achieved to a large extent by alternating rhythms). Overall, it is as enjoyable if not even more so than the third quartet. The performances are spirited and energetic throughout, and the sound is good. Overall, this is a rewarding release that will be enjoyed by anyone who likes romantic chamber music - though in the final verdict I would perhaps recommend the symphonies as the primary entry point for those unfamiliar with the composer.