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CD Daniel plays Schumann

Thoughts on Schumann, Volkmann, Strauss and Bruch – by Daniel Müller-Schott

Schumann’s Cello Concerto was the first work that I heard in an orchestra rehearsal, in the Herkulessaal in Munich, at the age of 5. The immense intensity of this music had an impact on me that lasted for a long time and awakened in me a great desire to learn the cello. At about 17, I began to study the score and performed the concerto for the first time. Besides the music, I was also interested in Schumann’s biography and in the epoch of Romanticism in general. Painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge and poets such as Goethe, Jean Paul, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Novalis had a great influence on Robert Schumann. “To alienate art in a pleasant manner ... that is Romantic poesy”, Novalis once said. The natural philosophies, the belief in mysticism, the yearning for love and friendship are what determine the Romantic sensibility in music. Furthermore, the Romantics were fascinated by the mysterious atmosphere of darkness and the night. In Schumann’s Cello Concerto too, chasm-like perspectives are opened up. One is reminded of Goethe’s words that “two souls, oh, exist within my breast.” Schumann described and felt two such characters within himself – Florestan the stormy enthusiast and Eusebius, the pensive, melancholic dreamer.

After completing his concerto, Schumann had problems in finding a suitable soloist. In 1850, he was in fact at a highpoint of his career, as the new music director in Düsseldorf. His wife Clara encouraged him repeatedly, and was enthusiastic about the atmosphere of the finale. But after looking at the score, Emil Bockmühl, the cellist who worked together with Schumann, found ever new excuses why he could not play the concerto. These ranged from a “typhus of the stomach” to “an accident – my children fell upon my cello”. However odd all that sounds, it must have been a sobering experience for Schumann. He was keen for a performance, and had even planned to offer his publisher the concerto in a version for cello and string quartet, or to arrange it for the violin. In retrospect, it is a terrible shame that the concerto was not performed in its orchestral version until 1860, almost four years after his death, and that Schumann never had the opportunity to hear his work in all its greatness. Schumann was particularly fond of the cello, an instrument that he had played in his youth. When he injured his right hand on account of excessive practising and had to end his career as a pianist, he even considered taking up the cello again, because “Other than bowing, one only really needs the fingers of the left hand”. It was probably this early encounter with the instrument that was responsible for the cello always having played a special, deeply moving role in Schumann’s compositions. In his Cello Concerto, he achieved a synthesis of seriousness, depth, poetry, grim humour, dreaminess and explosive virtuosity. We can only be grateful for every single note of this wonderful work.

It is astonishing when one realizes how many composers after Schumann, of the 19th or early 20th century, wrote works for the cello that were often performed at the time, but which over the ensuing decades were forgotten. I’m thinking here, for example, of Joachim Raff, Carl Reinecke, Albert Dietrich, Anton Rubinstein or Henri Vieuxtemps. And in particular of the composer Robert Volkmann. Whereas the composers of the Baroque, from Vivaldi to C.P.E. Bach, wrote rather many concertos for cello and chamber orchestra, we have to acknowledge that the cello did not yet attain a really soloistic role in the great repertoire of the Classical period. During the Romantic period, however, the cello was allowed a bigger role. At last composers abandoned their worries that the instrument might not be able to withstand the dynamic power of a symphony orchestra, worries that perhaps had arisen because of the then use of gut strings etc. Robert Volkmann knew the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven very well, and was personally acquainted with Schumann, Brahms, Hans von Bülow and Franz Liszt, and in Vienna even lived in a flat next to the influential critic Eduard Hanslick. Volkmann’s music was much praised by the critics, and his Piano Trio op. 5 and his First Symphony op. 44 were really popular with both the public and his fellow artists. With his Cello Concerto op. 33, first performed in Vienna in 1857, Volkmann wrote what was perhaps the best-loved concerto of the second half of the 19th century, at least among the general public. However, this fame did not last, and after 1910, the work was rapidly forgotten.

Just like Schumann, Volkmann too had learnt the cello in his youth and loved the characteristic tone of the instrument. His own concerto is not just in the same tonality as Schumann’s – A minor – and is written in movements that run into each other, but it also begins in a similarly lyrical mood with the notes E and A. The concerto then proceeds, however, in a manner that is very different, and highly individual. This concerto is in a single-movement sonata form with large-scale episodes between the main sections. It is enormously virtuosic and demands much from the soloist, including stormy semiquaver passages full of sixths, thirds and octaves, leaps across the strings and chromatic runs racing through all the positions. We can see here that Volkmann knew the intricacies of the instrument extremely well. Besides all its brilliant virtuosity, however, he manages time and again to let the opening theme shine through, and to have it played by the strings and winds in such a manner that a good balance is achieved between lyrical cantabile and brilliant, coruscating attack. Even musical humour is here in abundance – I’m thinking of the amusing passages using harmonics, in dialogue with the orchestra, at which Maestro Eschenbach, the NDR Symphony Orchestra and I always had to smile during the recording. But what also excite me about the concerto are its echoes of opera – the recitative-like passages continually underline Volkmann’s love of dialogic expression in the concerto. Nor can one ignore the fact that after over a hundred years, it is high time for a change in performance practice that will also help to reawaken interest in the concerto.

In Volkmann’s time, it was usual for publishers only to lend the score to conductors. For this reason, the first printed score of the concerto was only published in 1905 by Schott, who had bought the original rights from the Hungarian company Heckenast. But this was already a highly truncated version made by the cellist Hugo Becker. The orchestral parts and the solo part were adapted to Becker’s score. But nor was that the end of it. In 1942, Schott published a “new” version that they endeavoured to sell by stating on the cover that it was a “free adaption” by the cellist Enrico Mainardi. Thus it came about that Schott’s “improvements” were played in Germany and across the world and even recorded – with one notable exception. The original version that we have restored here is some three minutes longer than Mainardi’s version of 1942. The astronomer and Volkmann expert Dr Daniel Christlein kindly undertook the laborious task of reconstructing the orchestral parts. For the cadenza on this CD recording, I kept Volkmann’s original idea and have extended his version only by some quotations of his themes.

It is an astonishing fact that my Goffriller cello of 1727 has a special connection to Robert Volkmann, a connection of which I only learnt recently. The great cellist David Popper (1843–1911), who was equally at home in Prague, Vienna and Budapest, loved above all the two important cello concertos that dated from his own youth: those of Schumann (published in 1854) and Volkmann (published in 1858). Popper invested much energy in playing these two concertos on his tours across the whole of Europe. In his later years, Popper became a highly successful teacher and provided half of Europe with first-class cellists. One of his master pupils was the Hungarian Arnold Földesy (1882–1940), who was appointed solo cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1915 by his fellow countryman Arthur Nikisch. Under Nikisch and his successor Wilhelm Furtwängler, Földesy played most of the important cello concertos. In 1924, he took off on his own and travelled the world as a virtuoso. That same year, Földesy recorded the Volkmann concerto op. 33 (and other works) on six shellac records of the VOX company. It was without a doubt the first-ever recording of it. And this completes the circle: my Shapiro-Goffriller cello was after Földesy’s death in 1940 named the “Ex-Földesy”, as he had played it for several decades. The tone of my cello had obviously already been committed to shellac in that 1924 recording of Volkmann’s Cello Concerto.

The Romance by Richard Strauss is a rather little-known piece. It belongs to the earlier works of the composer, and does not have an opus number. Despite Strauss’s youth – he composed it at the age of 19 – this piece is remarkable for its maturity and its personal character, and it oozes both lyricism and rhythmic impulsivity. The Romance used to be played regularly by the famous Czech cellist Hanuš Wihan, who was also the dedicatee of Dvořák’s concerto and a friend of Strauss’s father. Today, one does not come across this Romance often in concert programmes, on account of its length of only 10 minutes – even though everything in it points to Strauss’s future as a composer of operas and the creator of symphonic poems such as Till Eulenspiegel or Don Quixote.

As a counterpart to the Strauss, I have chosen Kol Nidrei by Max Bruch. With its popularity today, we should not forget the enmity against which the composer had to fight in his day, simply because he utilized old Hebrew melodies in his music. That later led to the work’s being banned under the Nazis. Kol Nidrei was written in 1880–81. Its title and the traditional melody sung by the cantor are from the beginning of the prayer for the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Its second theme, too, which sounds out in a bright major tonality – in contrast to the first – is old Hebrew in origin. It is a very moving thing that Bruch chose the cello for the voice of the cantor. For me, this work is a timeless jewel that in many ways evokes the hope of a better, more forgiving future.

July 2009
(Translation: Chris Walton)

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