Volume 7 in Hyperion’s Romantic Cello Concerto series features
German cellist and composer Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. Today a mere footnote
Fitzenhagen was a highly prolific composer for the cello writing over
sixty works for his instrument including four concertos, a suite for
cello and orchestra and numerous salon pieces. If Fitzenhagen hadn’t
been the dedicatee and arranger of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations
his name probably would not be known at all.
Born in 1848 at Seesen, now in the German state of Lower Saxony, Fitzenhagen
studied in Dresden with Friedrich Grützmacher. Aged twenty years he
joined the Dresden Hofkapelle (now the Staatskapelle) beginning his
career as a solo cellist. As a composer it appears that Fitzenhagen
received no formal education but went on to have his first composition
published in 1870 by Kahnt of Leipzig. The same year he came to the
attention of Franz Liszt who failed to persuade the cellist to come
to Weimar as he had already been granted a professorship at the prestigious
Moscow Conservatory. In Russia Fitzenhagen was esteemed as both a cello
instructor and chamber music performer. It was there that Fitzenhagen’s
friendship with Tchaikovsky was soon forged.
Composed around 1871 Fitzenhagen’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in B minor
bears a dedication to a well known patron of the arts: ‘His Majesty
Grand Duke Carl Alexander of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach, in deepest reverence’.
The concerto comprises the traditional three movements which are played
continuously. Particularly enjoyable is the short but attractively lyrical
cello line in the central Andante. The Finale: Allegro
presents challenges for the soloist but ends in jubilation.
Subtitled Fantastique, the Cello Concerto No 2 in A minor
was written around the time of the B minor concerto. Musicologist
Arnold Schering viewed the A minor score as being influenced
by the work of Henri Vieuxtemps the composer and violinist. The opening
Maestoso is notable and agreeably upbeat. The extremely melodious
central B flat major Andante movement has a rather sombre feel.
Akin to the style of the in B minor scorethe closing
Allegro moderato also concludes in celebratory style.
The Fitzenhagen work that I enjoyed the most was his Ballade
subtitled Conzertstück from 1874. Lasting just over seventeen
minutes here, this is a considerable and well crafted score of mainly
warm and enduring lyricism including welcome contrasts.
Concluding the Fitzenhagen offering is the short Resignation
subtitle Ein geistliches Lied ohne Worte (A Sacred Song Without
Words), Op. 8 which is pleasing if rather languid and reflective.
It was written shortly after Fitzenhagen’s arrival in Moscow and bears
a dedication to his friend ‘Eduard Klein in Moscow’. In 1872 Resignation
was initially published for cello with harmonium, organ or piano
accompaniment and later in 1874 the version played here was prepared
for cello and small orchestra.
Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme was the nearest that
the great Russian composer came to composing a cello concerto. In this
score his affection for Baroque music and his admiration of Mozart are
both firm influences. Tchaikovsky thought highly of Fitzenhagen’s prowess
on the cello and dedicated the Rococo Variations to him, seeking
his opinion and sending him the score. Fitzenhagen made numerous sweeping
changes even writing some of his own music. Tchaikovsky kept the much
revised score as Fitzenhagen had left it and this was the version that
was played exclusively until 1956 when Tchaikovsky’ original was finally
published. Fitzenhagen’s revised version is still played and is recorded
here by Alban Gerhardt. The form of the work is a short introduction
and theme, seven variations follow, each separated by an orchestral
Ritornello. In the Rococo Variations Gerhardt’s playing
is assured, both eloquent and engaging. I admire the delicacy given
to the beautiful Variation III, Andante sostenuto. Contrastingly
Gerhardt’s interpretation of Variation IV, andante grazioso
is blithe in spirit: childlike and playful. This beautiful accountis of such a high standard that I will surely return to
it. Probably the most popular versions of this work are the evergreen
and heavyweight accounts from Rostropovich and the Berlin Philharmonic
Orchestra under Karajan on Deutsche Grammophon (alternative performances
and from Lynn Harrell and the Clevelanders under Maazel on Decca. Of
the newer discs, I admire the engaging sensitivity of soloist Sol Gabetta
playing with the Münchner Rundfunkorchester under Ari Rasilainen, recorded
in 2005 at Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich on RCA
Everywhere here Gerhardt is at his most eloquent, technically exceptional
and interpretatively satisfying. It would be hard to imagine finer support
than that provided by the world class Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester
Berlin under Stefan Blunier who holds everything together with adept
assurance. The sound quality was wholly satisfying with an especially
splendid balance between soloist and orchestra.
Fluid and lyrical, this attractive music, reminded me of Saint-Saëns
and Bruch but without the same standard of development and quality of
thematic invention. In truth it didn't hold my attention for long. Nevertheless
those interested in virtually forgotten late-Romantic composers might
well want to explore Fitzenhagen as represented by this Hyperion CD
especially when the music is played as superbly as this.