About this Recording
GP640 - FROMMEL, G.: Piano Sonatas Nos. 4-7 (Blome)
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Gerhard Frommel (1906–1984)
Piano Sonatas Nos. 4–7

 

“I regard my seven piano sonatas as a miniature compendium of my output; they run through the various stages of my development like a delicate thread. They also demonstrate how each composition is individually crafted stylistically and technically to convey its own particular utterance”, writes Gerhard Frommel in his “Autobiographical Sketch” of 1976. The present recording comprises Sonatas Nos. 4–7. Sonatas Nos. 1–3, also played by Tatjana Blome, were released on Grand Piano GP606 in 2012.

Gerhard Frommel was born in Karlsruhe on 7th August 1906. He pursued his initial studies with Hermann Grabner, then, from 1926 to 1928, as a student in Hans Pfitzner’s masterclasses. He taught composition at the universities in Frankfurt am Main and Stuttgart, among others, and taught at the military music academy in Frankfurt during the Second World War. After 1950, because of its association with Fascism, tonal music, including Frommel’s, was ousted by dodecaphonic music and its derivatives. Frommel died in Filderstadt on 22nd June 1984.

Pfitzner, who encouraged him to root himself in the Romantic tradition, and above all the poet Stefan George, exerted a decisive influence on Frommel’s artistic attitudes. The latter’s strict stylistic thinking acted as an opposing, “modern” position and might explain Frommel’s preoccupation with Igor Stravinsky’s Neoclassicism in the Twenties. In 1937 he published a treatise on the subject entitled Neue Klassik in der Musik (“Neoclassicism in Music”) that opposed the prevailing Nazi ideology. This advocacy is of a piece with his predilection for the transparent musical idiom of Latin composers such as Puccini, Bellini and Fauré, to which a whole series of essays bears witness.

Frommel’s compositional output is fairly modest. Suffice to mention two (as yet unperformed) stage works, a large-scale choral piece, Herbstfeier, to a text by Ludwig Derleth, two symphonies (the first of which was premiered in 1942 by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Wilhelm Furtwängler), two violin sonatas, further piano pieces and over 30 songs, mostly settings of poems by Stefan George.

Frommel’s generation was influenced far more by Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky than by Arnold Schoenberg. Frommel’s music melds a fundamentally Romantic approach with Stravinskian vitality to achieve vividness of expression, both in its sensuous melodic lines and its jaunty, dance-like rhythms. This gives it a marked individuality.

In the first three sonatas (1931–41) Frommel had integrated German Romanticism, Stravinsky’s Neoclassicism and Debussy into his individual style. In Sonata No. 4 in F major, Op. 21 (1943/44), faced with the horrors of the war and succumbing, whilst in France (in 1940), to Gabriel Fauré’s subtle music, he went back to music’s old beauty, writing a “Sonate classique” without any trace of irony—three beautiful, classical movements (Allegro moderato, 4/4, in F major; Tempo di Siciliano, 9/8, in D minor; and a Tarantella—he had written one with more unyielding rhythms and strident harmonies in the Third SonataAllegro molto, 6/8, in F major). He aims for transparency and airiness throughout, while his predilection for dance rhythms and expressive themes and sheer pleasure in the art of the piano are similarly “French”.

Sonata No. 5 in E flat major (1951, with multiple revisions up to 1982) comprises a single movement like Sonata No. 3, though unlike that sonata it does not combine several incomplete movements into one, but is cast in an extended sonata form (Sostenuto/Allegro) with a slow section before the development (Lento, 3/4, in D flat major). “Crystalline clarity, the hardness of diamonds, the breath of melody”—these were the characteristics that Frommel wanted to realise in this sonata. In speaking of hardness, he was not thinking primarily of the sonorities, but the “overall impression, the form, the character”, going on to say: “[the Sonata] was, for me, a last ditch effort, something that I was just able salvage despite my despair at the tide of musical developments surging over me during those years.”* The result was a large-scale piece in the heroic key of E flat major, deploying considerable pianistic resources and condensed into a single movement. Three clearly defined themes are introduced: a main theme that is full of pathos, a dance-like second theme, and a lyrical third that is related to the main theme. The expansive but clearly structured form is matched by a powerful musical idiom that is stretched to embrace a broad compass, by catchy but highly differentiated rhythms and by harmonies which, while clearly related to E flat major, are loaded with unrelated notes and bitonal voice-leading to the point of extreme dissonance. Melodic extension and embellishment, chordal outbursts and recalcitrant countermelodies call the development of the music into question and give the work a masculine sharpness and a restive, even anarchic character. And then, in the midst of the clattering harmonies, there is a still intermezzo of touching beauty and fragility.

The serene transparency of Sonata No. 6 in B flat major (1956, multiple revisions until 1982) lies like an isle of the blessed between the solid block of the “heroic” Fifth and the Constructivism of Sonata No. 7. It too comprises three movements, the first an Allegro molto, sempre un poco rubato (alla breve, in B flat major), an Adagio (6/8, in E flat minor) and a Rondo (Allegro, 6/8) that is built on a five-note gamelan scale: B flat, A flat, F, E flat and D or D flat. The work follows the “classical” Sonatas Nos. 2 and 4 in displaying an extremely high degree of stylistic unity alongside great thematic and motivic diversity and filigree passage-work with agreeably pungent rhythms. Forms are clear and develop organically out of the thematic and motivic material. The finale genuinely comprises only the five notes and sounds like a multifaceted glockenspiel. The Adagio represents a culmination of rhythmic refinement melded with poised profundity. Its inventiveness and structural perfection give this sonata a place amongst the best in its genre.

“Sonata No. 7 is especially important to me, as it stretches to the limit what I have learned about modern music.”** The Sonata in C major comprises three movements: Allegro non troppo, alla breve, in C major; Larghetto, tempo rubato, 5/8, in F minor; Allegro, 3/4, in C major. The essential Constructivism of modern music has left obvious traces in this final sonata, composed in 1966 and revised up until 1982. The motifs interlock tightly, especially in the first and third movements, then dissolve into figuration surrounding a theme (the second theme of the first movement and the slow movement). The harmonies are characterised by chords of fourths and seconds, whose normal functions are suspended and neutralised. The “crystalline quality” that defined the Fifth Sonata is taken further here, creating the kinds of effect that also occur in serial music and, where the lines converge harmonically, an unexpected impression of depth (the second theme of the second movement). Whilst the first two movements still have clearly discernible themes that are developed, the rhythmic sequence of fourths that defines the last movement obliterates its melodic content—the sound of a particular rhythmic sequence attains the status of a theme. But even in the last movement there is a second theme (Tempo moderato) with melodic pretensions that lends a sensual quality to the abstraction. The two distinctive features of Frommel’s music, dancing dramaticism and songful lyricism, are here radically juxtaposed. In the flute melismas in the second movement, we also have one of the Mediterranean moments typical of Frommel’s music—an intimation of the world of the god Pan. This summation of Frommel’s typical modes of expression in a work he was conscious would be his last could only be achieved at this level of extreme profiling at the cost of a certain brittleness and tonal and formal fragmentation.

Even though Frommel’s music has different origins to that of his younger contemporaries, it thus develops from an affirmation of harmony and melody to their suspension, though received tradition continues to exert its influence. This continuity in his development demands more acute hearing than any radical either-or, and yields a music that bears repeated listening.

* Gerhard Frommel: Autobiographical Sketch, MS. 1975, p.91f.
** Gerhard Frommel: Letter to the author, dated 29. 11. 1980.

Peter Vogel
Translation by Susan Baxter


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