“Bal(l)ade romantique”: chamber works and songs of Jean Baptiste (Johann Benjamin) Gross. Christophe Coin (cello), Yoko Kaneko (piano), Michael Dahmen (baritone), Quatuor Mosaïques. Laborie Records LC09 (2010), barcode 0810473010044
Gross deserves a rediscovery
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 5 November 2012
So, now, some labels have found it very convenient not to provide any liner notes, but just a weblink where to read and download them. Well, no, I take that back: this Laborie CD comes indeed with a very short libretto, with a short blurb on the composer (in three languages), texts of songs (in German only) and perfomers’ credits, with a weblink for “the full booklet online”. And I’m sure it saves printing costs, which no doubt is good for a very small label like Laborie, publishing a recording of an obscure composer from the German romantic era. But what if the company folds and the website shuts down? The CDs remain, if only on the marketplace, but no more liner notes. And, with a composer as obscure as Johann Benjamin Gross (Frenchified into Jean Baptiste in many publications, even those made in Germany), it is not that you can dispense with them either. (Incidentally, the cover photo is very misleading, making you easily think that the composer was “Felix Gross”. Not at all: Felix Gross was a maker of fortepianos in Vienna, no known relation with Johann Benjamin, and it is an 1838 Felix Gross fortepiano that pianist Yoko Kaneko plays). Or what if, simply, the weblink has changed? So I typed in the link given on the CD cover, www.ebl-laborie.com/gross.pdf, and that led me to the infuriating 404 “webpage can’t be found”. Well, at least, a further Google search showed that the label still exists [2016 update: not anymore. They folded in 2015. See my discography of the label for more on that, and on those librettos], as well as its owning company, Fondation La Borie, a non-profit organization dedicated to music and located in a chateau in the French Limousin region. I’ve had to spend some time clicking from page to page before I could find the d****n notes. And sure, they probably wouldn’t even had had the space to print the new link on their back cover, www.fondationlaborie.com/images/stories/notesdeprogramme/livret_gross_en.pdf. As the French say, why make it simple when you can make it complicated?
Well, the liner notes are no cheap job, they’re great. They offer not only a biographical sketch of Gross, but also a catalog of his works (43 opus numbers and 11 without opus), the facsimiles of the covers of the scores of his Lieder and Songs for man’s voice and piano, Serenade, Sonata and Lyric pieces for Cello and Piano (of which the Ballade is excerpted), the lyrics of the five songs sung on the CD with English and French translations, a complete presentation of the Felix Gross fortepiano and its maker, and biographies of the performers. The CD holder is also very original, a gate-fold opening in which the CD is held in an origami-like unfolding cardboard casing. Never seen anything as delicate and refined (turns out to be a “packaging concept” created by a Swedish company called Jakebox [no stupid computer this ain’t a typo, it is indeed jAkebox].
Gross had a short life: born in 1809, he died of cholera in 1848, which makes him the near-exact contemporary, both in birth and death, of Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and Chopin (1810-1849). He was known mainly as a cellist (and a close friend to violinist Ferdinand David, with whom he played in the Quartet of Baron Carl Eduard von Liphardt), and spent the end of his short life as a Court musician in Saint Petersburg, but as many instrumentalists in those times (it was the case also with David), he composed, especially for his own instrument: he left four Cello Concertos, many duets for two cellos and for cello and piano, cello and double-bass or cello and guitar, but also four string quartets. He was acquainted with the Schumanns and Mendelssohn, and Clara Wieck was the pianist with whom he premiered his Cello-Piano Sonata opus 7.
The recital is arranged as a Schubertiade – or should one say, a “Grossiade”? -, interspersing the cello-piano pieces with five songs from Gross’ book of Lieder und Gesänge for Tenor, baritone or bass, and ending with the String Quartet. You might think that music written by a virtuoso for his own needs – whose epitome would be, say, the Caprices of Paganini – would be brilliant, virtuosic, but rather shallow in musical content and certainly not up to the music written by “real” composers – although nobody thinks that of the piano music of Chopin or Liszt, and other than the piano, the sociology of the era produced many virtuosos of any and all instruments, violin, cello, harp, clarinet, that were composers, and no mean ones (I’ve never heard the music of harpist Krumpholz and am not familiar enough with the compositions of violinist Rode, cellist Franchomme or clarinetist Baermann to give a general opinion, but violinist Spohr and clarinetist Crusell come to mind).
Gross’ music is excellent. I think it is Mendelssohn that comes most to mind when listening to the Cello-Piano Sonata op. 7. It doesn’t quite have the lyrical warmth of Mendelssohn’s, especially in its slow movement, which is little more than a bridge passage between the two outer ones, but there it has more sweeping Romantic passion and drama. The string quartet has, in its first movement, the same kind of drama as in Mendelssohn’s own last quartets, and again, throughout, a romantic sweep and melodic generosity that evokes even later generations of romantic composers and works composed in the 1870s rather than the 1840s.
The five Lieder could have come out of the pen (or was it a quill?) of Schubert – maybe not the most inspired and profound Schubert of, say, Winterreise, but still, those songs wouldn’t be entirely out of place in Die Schöne Müllerin. They make me long to hear the complete cycle. Michael Dahmen sings them with a fine, light baritone voice.
The two smaller pieces for cello and piano (but running more than 10 minutes the Serenade is rather substantial) evoke Schumann – again, maybe not the best-inspired Schumann, but the Schumann of, say, the 5 Stücke im Volkston and Märchenerzählungen (now how many cellists are going to zero in on me for claiming that 5 Stücke and Märchenerzählungen isn’t the best-inspired Schumann?). In the final chord of the Serenade the use of a fortepiano makes sense as never before the use of period instruments: it is twice a piano arpeggio segued by cello arpeggio in pizzicati, and because of the more frail tone of the fortepiano compared to a modern grand, the two instruments blend exquisitely, to the point of being almost undistinguishable.
Not that by these comparisons I wish to imply that Gross is derivative or imitative, but rather that he is evocative. As in the classical era of Mozart and Haydn, there were shared elements of style between like-minded composers. On the basis of this CD Gross deserves a rediscovery. All the interpreters seem to serve him well. TT 74:20 (says my computer), not the 71:42 indicated on the back cover. Other than the issue with finding the liner notes, everything is pleasing about this CD.