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 score the 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 account is 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 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 Red Seal.
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.