Carl Czerny (1791-1857): String Quartets / Sheridan Ensemble


What circumstances would compel a composer to purposely conceal his finest compositions, while at the same time publishing an abundance of, if not mediocre, certainly second-rate music? The name Carl Czerny (1791-1857) has been known to generations of pianists as the author of the most widely used method books and exercises for the student pianist. He also published well over 800 opuses of études, nocturnes, sonatas, variations and other pieces for piano, popular in the salons and parlors of 19th-century Vienna. However, it is not widely known that there also exists a large body of "serious" compositions (masses, symphonies, choral music, chamber works, songs), existing in manuscript form only, that Czerny wrote and quietly shelved, never allowing them to be heard.

In the area of the string quartet alone, there exist at least 20, and possibly as many as 40 quartets. This new recording by the exceptional Sheridan Ensemble of four of these quartets, including two appearing as world-premiere recordings, is a landmark release. It's one I expect will factor in some of the most influential "best of 2015" editors' choice lists for the year. Czerny's music is superb; the Sheridan's performances are magnificent.

The quartets are written in a manner decidedly centered on Classical models, expertly crafted with forms and styles that bring to mind Haydn and early Beethoven. They are believed to have been written in the middle of the 19th century, so are clearly influenced by the early romantics, such as Mendelssohn and Schumann. There's a freedom and spontaneity to Czerny's writing that makes these quartets sound as though they were produced effortlessly. The outer movements are rich in motivic diversity, full of restless energy with exciting, forwardly driven sections of development. The slow movements have a subdued reticence to them, loving and heartfelt. Three of these four quartets are in minor keys. The very impressive sample track is the Finale, Allegro vivace from one of these.

So, why did Czerny conceal his finest work? Sheridan Ensemble cellist Anna Carewe proposes in the album liner notes that Czerny, rather unsure of himself, did not want to risk his highly successful career as a teacher and composer of lighter fare by drawing criticism for his serious work. Whatever the reason, these quartets suggest that Czerny, the composer, was a major talent. Perhaps the perception of him as a pedagogue who also wrote some music will be turned on its head over the coming decade, and he will become known as an exceptionally gifted composer who also codified an important set of study methods for modern piano playing. On evidence of this revealing release, such a reevaluation would be well deserved.

Carl Czerny: Symphony No. 5 in E flat major