Friedrich Gernsheim was a talented pianist and composer with two strikes against him. He was a contemporary of Johannes Brahms, who overshadowed him during his lifetime. And he was a German Jew, so his legacy was (temporarily) erased by the Nazis.

The 21st Century seems to be kinder to Gernsheim, given the number of recent recordings devoted to his music. Toccata Classics launches a survey of Gernsheim’s piano music beginning right at the beginning.

Pianist Jens Barnieck performs two of Gernsheim’s juvenile sonatas and his Op. 2 set of preludes.

Gernsheim started composing at age seven. The two sonatas Barnieck’s carefully reconstructed from manuscripts were written when Gernsheim about 14. The sonatas were written as composition assignments, but there is nothing academic — or juvenile — about them.

The sonatas show a composer strongly influenced by Beethoven, but not imitative of him. Gernsheim’s harmonies seem to look forward to Schumann, giving these works their own voices.

The Six Preludes come much later, written when Gernsheim was 25. He was teaching at the Conservatory at Saarbrücken, working under Ferdinand Hiller. Gernsheim’s preludes superficially resemble Chopin’s, though differences soon become apparent.

Like Chopin, Gernsheim wrote to his pianistic strengths. Throughout the six preludes, there are cascading arpeggios, syncopated cross-rhythms, and large, knuckle-busting chords. And there are quiet, simple passages of great beauty.

Jens Barnieck performs with solid technique and real authority. He knows these works and understands Gernsheim in a way few modern pianists do. That understanding makes these works come alive. And makes me look forward to the rest of this series.

Fredrich Gernsheim: Piano Music, Volume One
Piano Sonata Nn. 2 in E-flat major; Piano Sonata No. 3 in D minor; Six Preludes, Op. 2
Jens Barnieck, piano
Toccata Classics TOCC 0206