Robert Volkmann (1815-1883, German)

Of course, you have Mendelssohn (born in 1809), Schumann (1810), Liszt (1811), Wagner (1813), Bruckner (1824) and Brahms (1833), the towering masters of Austro-German Romantic music among those born in the first fifty years of the 19th Century (Liszt by establishment in Weimar and membership of the Wagner circle rather than by birth). And then you have the throng of now obscure “minor” composers, Norbert Burgmüller (1810), Ferdinand Hiller (1811), Sigismund Thalberg (1812), Julius Rietz (1812), Robert Volkmann (1815), Gustav Nottebohm (1817), Friedrich Kiel (1822), Joseph Joachim Raff (1822), Theodor Kirchner (1823), Carl Reinecke (1824), Albert Dietrich (1829), Julius Reubke (1834), Felix Draeseke (1835) and even Max Bruch (1838) who, other than his Violin Concerto, arguably remains one of these obscure and minor composers, Joseph Rheinberger (1839), Friedrich Gernsheim (1839), Hermann Goetz (1840)… I’ll stop the list there, and I’m probably forgetting many (there’s no end to obscurity and minority)… and not even mentioning the composers from other parts of Europe.

But it’s always enlightening to explore those “minor” composers. Thanks to the recordings and the radio, we live so permanently in the company of the great masterpieces that we tend to become blasé and oversee what it is that makes them such masterpieces. Placing the Everest side by side with the Mont-Blanc may help you you understand how mighty and towering the former really is. Or the sun with Jupiter or the earth (and try VY Canis Majoris!).

But in turn, listening to these “minor” composers raises the nagging question: what is it that makes their works the music of “minor” composers, as opposed to the music of the “major” composers of the Romantic era?

My tentative answer to that question used to be: as enjoyable as the music may be, it never gives you the impression that you haven’t heard it before (echoes of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms….). But after listening to the orchestral music of Volkmann (as well as to the symphonies of Max Bruch, and much chamber music by these and other composers), I’m tempted to reverse the statement: even though the music may never give you the impression that you haven’t heard it before, it is highly enjoyable nonetheless, and sometimes not strikingly inferior to similar works from the recognized “major” composers.

Complete Orchestral Works (Overture “Richard III” op. 68, Symphony No. 1 op. 44, Symphony No. 2 op. 53, Cello Concerto op. 33, Overture op. posth. In C major). Johannes Wohlmacher (cello), Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, Werner Andreas Albert. Cpo 999 151-2 (2 CDs) (1994) (no idea why Cpo titled the set like that, those are far from Volkmann’s “complete” orchestral works, as shown by Cpo’s own release of the Serenades for strings, and by various other Overtures or Concertos of Volkmann)

Serenades 1-3 (op. 62, 63, 69) (+ Carl Reinecke: Serenade in G minor op. 242). Catherine Tunnell (cello, in op. 69), Deutsche Kammerakademie Neuss am Rhein, Johannes Goricki. Cpo 999 159-2 (1994)

Re-listening to it, I am confirmed in my initial impression that Volkmann’s Cello Concerto is a magnficent work, a masterpiece among the few 19th-century masterpieces in the genre (and, even adding Beethoven’s Triple and Brahms’ Double, there aren’t so many), and the missing link between Schumann’s (1850) and Dvorak’s (1895). Composed in the early 1850s, it is more advanced than Schumann’s, especially in its original formal layout in one movement which makes it as much a “Rhapsody” as a Concerto in the traditional sense. It boasts a near continuous melodic line for the cello, often written in the sol clef (the cello’s upper baritonal and most lyrical register) and apparently in a highly virtuosic manner, including a number of gorgeous cadenzas. The Concerto should be in the repertoire of every serious cellist and would make a perfect discmate to Schumann’s.

Other than Wohlmacher’s version on the Cpo set of “Complete Orchestral Works” (see above), I have the reissue of the Turnabout recording by Thomas Blees, where it is generously paired with Hans Pfitzner’s great and neglected Violin Concerto and Volkmann’s highly virtuosic but pretty shallow Konzertstück for piano and orchestra:

Pfitzner: Violin Concerto (Susanne Lautenbacher). Volkmann: Konzertstück (Jerome Rose), Cello Concerto (Thomas Blees). Turnabout / Carlton Classics 3037100402 (1996)

Volkmann’s chamber music confirms and reinforces the impression: in the case of the two piano trios, it’s not just that “they may remind you of those of Brahms, but are fine works nonetheless”, it is that they are masterpieces of equal stature as those of Brahms, with soaring melodies of passionate intensity. They further put the lie to the notion that there are no neglected masterpieces, and further demonstrate that posterity is a bitch.

Robert Volkmann: Piano Trios op. 3 in F major, op. 5 in B flat minor. Beethoven Trio Ravensburg. Cpo 999 128-2 (1994)

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