If Wilhelm Fitzenhagen still needs rehabilitating—and some high-brow critics are still endlessly ticking him off for his revision of the Rococo Variations—then maybe this disc will go some way to achieve that aim. There have certainly been other recordings of these works—I reviewed the A minor concerto eight years ago, when it was on a similarly all-Fitzenhagen disc—but the performances by Alban Gerhardt are on a rather higher instrumental and interpretative level, no matter how attentive and thoughtful was the playing of Jens Peter Maintz.
Fitzenhagen was in the vanguard of executant-composer cellists in the twenty years between 1870 and 1890. His Concerto No 1, Op 2 dates from 1870 and as with many concertos of the time dispenses with much by the way of orchestral introduction and plunges the cellist almost immediately into the fray. Assertive and expressive subjects are made much of, and there’s an early cadenza at 4:52 in the concerto where orchestral strings interject to demarcate the solo passages—a diverting and intriguing device. The second movement is an intensely lyrical Andante and the finale is nimbly done, the soloist leading the accompanying band a merry dance.
In the A minor Fitzenhagen sheds any vestige of orchestral opening, this time plunging the cello straight in. The overriding schematic influence, once more, is Schumann though it would be interesting to know, in passing, to what extent Vieuxtemps may have known Fitzenhagen’s concertos as his are predicated on similar lines and were written only a matter of a few years later. Gerhardt has recorded them as part of this Hyperion series. The control of metrics and material is excellent here and preparation for thematic writing is scrupulous. Orchestrally things are quite balletic, much more so in this performance than in the Oehms rival already mentioned, and the writing, whilst never urbane, remains vibrantly projected. In some ways though the biggest surprises come in the innocuous-sounding Ballade, a concertstück quite as long as the companion concertos. It is, in any case, pretty much a one-movement concerto, excellently structured with a full array of interesting themes and development to lull the ear. It maintains—as some pieces of this type and period do—interest throughout its 17-minute length. Resignation is a noble little song-without-words, originally composed for cello and harmonium or organ or piano. Its hymnal qualities are perfectly realised in this solo-and- orchestral version published in 1874, two years after the instrumental version.
It is inevitable, perhaps, that the Variations on a Rococo Theme should be included though I should have preferred a smattering of the salon and genre pieces that form a significant part of Fitzenhagen’s output—even if it risked creating a topsy-turvy programme with orchestral and piano support. The idea that the Rococo arrangement was mere hacking about is one that has never gone away but a performance as persuasive as this—and, in truth, many others over the years—shows that, whatever critical mud might be thrown at Fitzenhagen, hackwork shouldn’t be among the epithets.
These excellently recorded and scrupulously played performances have the advantage of a thoughtful booklet note. This is volume 7 in ‘The Romantic Cello Concerto’, a series that is going from strength to strength.