Born in Lommatzsch, Saxony, Volkmann had studied in Leipzig before working as a teacher of music in Prague and Budapest, an experience which inspired an affinity with Bohemian and Hungarian music. Many of his works exhibit the ‘Hungarian’ or Tzigeuner colouring variously exploited by Liszt, Joachim and Brahms. During this time Volkmann came within the orbit of Liszt, who championed some of his first successful compositions (such as the remarkable B flat minor Piano Trio, which also drew praise from Brahms). He settled in Vienna in 1854 but later returned to Budapest as professor of composition at the National Musical Academy there. Though once seen as a standard-bearer for the ‘Music of the Future’, Volkmann’s instincts proved to be more conservative and most of his works are in the Classical genres. They include two Masses, two symphonies, six string quartets, three serenades (one with solo cello) and copious piano and vocal music.
Like Schumann, Volkmann sought to bind his Cello Concerto into a highly unified form, but his approach was more radical: his work is a true single-movement concerto, albeit one cast in several distinguishable spans: basically a large sonata form with episodes and digressions between the principal sections. He also uses the full range of the cello and the work, though nowhere concerned with facile display, abounds in bravura touches in terms of rapid figuration and double-stopping in octaves, sixths or thirds.
The cello immediately propounds the finely shaped first subject, the elegant main theme being touched by a hint of anxious melancholy. An elaborate and voluble transition, dominated by a running semiquaver figure and demonstrating that this is a true virtuoso concerto, leads at length to a dolce second subject in C, the relative major, also announced by the soloist. Its initially songful strain develops in more purely instrumental terms with a witty alternation of low trills and high harmonics. A dialogue between cello, bassoon and oboe, quasi recitativo, leads to the central part of the concerto, corresponding to a development, largely based on the first subject and the semiquaver transition theme, in which Volkmann skilfully combines his ideas. Events turn dramatic, and issue in a cadenza-like solo episode which, with the gradual addition of orchestral instruments, modulates neatly into the recapitulation, which actually involves further development of the first subject before the second subject makes an orthodox reappearance in A major. A second, briefer cadenza leads into the coda. The cello’s concluding roulades around the tonic A climb and fade to a high, quiet E before the brusque concluding chords.
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2007