Romantic Awakening: Jens Barnieck at the German Consulate General

New York City
June 30, 2016


Stage is set for Jens Barnieck at the German Consulate in New York.

This evening, German pianist Jens Barnieck thrilled a large audience, who were generously invited one and all to a free concert at the German Consulate General, for a masterful performance of a program named Romantic Awakening. Upon first reading the program, the appropriateness of the “Romantic” moniker escaped me, but by the time all the music and applause had subsided, I felt I understood.

Mr. Barnieck (pronounced ‘Bar-NEE-eck’) began the program with a fluid and entrancing rendition of From My Diary, Op 82 of Max Reger, a German composer born not at the awakening but at the sunset of the Romantic period, and many of whose works may be considered more oriented toward the Baroque than the Romantic (and whose home at birth, Wiesbaden, is shared both by Mr. Barnieck and by me). While he played, those audience members on the left side and with good eyesight were able to follow the musical score, which, displayed on a large iPad, seemed to turn automatically at (mostly) the right time, apparently through listening to the music along with the guests.

At the interlude, Mr. Barnieck discussed the composer of the preceding piece, and then introduced the next piece, Impressions from the Jungle Book, composed in 1912 by the plainly Impressionist Cyril Scott, who, Mr. Barnieck remarked, was sometimes referred to as the “English Debussy.” Or possibly more appropriately Saint-Saens, given the vivid and lyrical movements to follow, awakening images of animals.

Following was Nocturne IV, composed in 2014 by the decidedly alive and Postmodern Portuguese-American composer Patricio da Silva and having its U.S. premiere tonight played by Mr. Barnieck, the composer’s personal friend. Employing the Postmodern trait of combining the best of multiple genres, the piece was full of rich chords and flowing melody, as played so beautifully and with such understanding by Mr. Barnieck.

The highlight and climax of the program was Sonata in D minor by Friedrich Gernsheim, a countryman of Reger’s (and clearly of many in the audience), and also his contemporary, whose long life ended in 1917, only one year after the brief one of Reger’s. Mr. Barnieck took time to explain this composition, meanwhile making a strong case for a scholarship on par with his virtuosity. How it came to see the light of day was through Mr. Barnieck’s own transcription from the composer’s scribbled handwriting on paper, written as a graduation-year project. The paper had been preserved for over a century-and-a-half after its composition, at the Leipzig Conservatory, where Gernsheim graduated with high honors in all his studies, in 1854—at age 15—and later by the National Library of Israel. Mr. Barnieck read a translation of a graduation testimonial to Friedrich, signed in 1854 by luminaries of contemporary piano performance and pedagogy, including Ignaz Moscheles, who was Friedrich’s piano and composition mentor at Leipzig.

The performance to which we had been invited by the German Consulate General was the world premiere of this sonata. The sonata was written in four movements, and Mr. Barnieck played each of them beautifully, despite an apparently mischievous sprite in his iPad that turned the page in the wrong direction before correcting itself—apparently the piece is as new to the sprite as it is to humans. As Mr. Barnieck played, we heard the unmistakable reverberation of Beethoven, not the more mature Romantic influences we might have heard coming from the mid-19th century.

Mr. Barnieck was called back to the stage by lengthy applause, and indulged the audience in a very sweet Chopin nocturne or berceuse. And there ended the musical evening, all too soon, the performer, music, host, instrument and rapt audience all having combined for a wonderful embodiment of German and American cultural harmony.

On my travels home, I reflected about the Romantic Awakening, and realized it is the contribution of Beethoven that marks the pinnacle of Classicism and the birth—the Awakening—of Romanticism. Moscheles, Beethoven’s collaborator and friend, who was one of the composers so loyal to Beethoven’s enduring spirit that to reject it for the hedonistic exuberance of full-on Romanticism, even at the start of the Late Romantic era of the mid-1850s, would have been unthinkable for him. Just as failing to kindle that spirit in his students would be a betrayal. So it is the voice of Beethoven that is revealed to be the Romantic Awakening in the 15-year-old Friedrich Gernsheim, audible at last through both the scholarship and artistry of Jens Barnieck.

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