This 2-CD set devoted to Robert Volkmann's orchestral output continues my exploration of the "minor" Romantic composers of the Austro-German area, which began with Fibich (Fibich: Symphony No. 1 in F major, Op. 17; The Tempest, Op.46 and Zdenek Fibich: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3) and Bruch (Bruch: The 3 Symphonies, Swedish Dances (Schwedische Tanze)).
The symphonies of Fibich were a chance encounter on the famous auction site, and they raised the nagging question: what is it that makes it the music of a "minor" composer, as opposed to the music of the "major" composers of the Romantic era. The pantheon of those is well established, I think; in chronological order: Beethoven, Weber, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner, Brahms, Mahler and Strauss. Volkmann's birth date places him between Wagner and Bruckner, and makes him Brahms' elder by 18 years.
And the tentative answer to that question, so far, is that, as enjoyable as it may be, it never gives you the impression that you haven't heard it before. Volkmann - like Bruch - is a good case in point, on both aspects: it rarely gives you the impression that you haven't heard it before; it is highly enjoyable nonetheless.
Born near Dresden, Volkmann visited Schumann during his student years in Leipzig, and became a close friend of Brahms in 1864. Other than a four-year stint in Vienna (1854 -1858), his chosen home base was Budapest until his death in 1883 (same year as Flotow and Wagner). It is Liszt's and Van Bülow's embrace of his Piano Trio in b-flat minor in 1850 that gave him his shot at fame: hence his move to Vienna, but that ultimately didn't bring the envisioned success.
The Cello Concerto was composed in the wake of the success of the Piano Trio (1853-55). Symphony No. 1 was completed in 1863 and No. 2 in 1865, which places them more than 20 years after the first ones of Schumann (and more than ten years after the "Rhenish"), and more than ten years before those of Brahms. Bruch's respective three symphonies were composed in 1868, 1870 and 1883-6. The Overture in C is contemporary with the Symphonies and the date of the Richard III Overture is not given, but its opus number seems to make it a later work than the rest.
Yes, there is much in Volkmann First Symphony that reminded me of Schumann (and, in the slow movement, strikingly the "Beethovenian" Schumann of the 4th Symphony), a little bit of Brahms. As the liner notes rightly point out, Volkmann (unlike Liszt or Berlioz) held on to the classical forms and architecture, and thus provides a link between Beethoven and Brahms. It is enjoyable music, very powerful and dramatic at times (try the opening of Symphony No. 1), Romantically "sturm und drang" (this is an anachronism in the definition of music styles, but not in the emotional content conveyed by the music), although it doesn't always avoid the triumphant bombast (as in some passages of the 1st Symphony's first movement). If you think of Beethoven, think of the Egmont Overture. The Overture "Richard III" is in fact a tone poem, not the overture to an actual opera, although its looseness of form and descriptive character is very redolent of the opera. It has pages of irresistible dramatic sweep and great romantic passion (the best Schumann again comes to mind).
Volkmann's 2nd Symphony is to his first what Brahms' second is to HIS first: a sunny and lighthearted counterpart to a dramatic and turbulent statement, which doesn't exclude moments of great dramatic intensity as well, pointing to Brahms even. The second movement has a marvellous elegance, and some passages brought to mind the ballet music of some Haendel operas. The ensuing andantino opens with a beautiful and plangent oboe melody, soon joined by French horn, displaying Volkmann's superb sense of color. The andantino runs into a finale in jaunty dotted rhythms that bring back Schubert's 9th to mind, and whose final pages even attain an exhilarating Brahmsian sweep. That finale alone makes me upgrade what was going to be a four-star rating into five-stars - and the Cello Concerto confirms it.
It provides a "missing link" between Schumann's (1850) and Dvorak's (1895). It is more advanced than Schumann's, including in its very original, one-movement formal layout which makes it a "Rhapsody" more than a Concerto in the traditional sense. It boasts a near continuous melodic line for the cello, often written in the sol clef (the cello's upper baritonal and most lyrical register) and apparently in highly virtuosic manner, including a number of gorgeous cadenzas. The Concerto should be in the repertoire of every serious cellist and would make a perfect discmate to Schumann's.
To me Brahms was the towering Austro-German symphonist of the 19th Century (at least, until the time of Mahler), and IMO nobody approaches him, although Bruckner's idiosyncratic style does set him apart. But I find Volkmann's symphonies (and concerto) not inferior to Schumann's and Mendelssohn's, although they may not have the melodic distinctiveness of the latter. Maybe if I listened to Schumann's and Mendelssohn's symphonies immediately after Volkmann's their superiority would sound obvious, but when I am listening to Volkmann I hear nothing to explain their popularity and his neglect.
The full score to Symphony No. 1 and piano score to the Cello Concerto are available for free download from the International Music Score Project Library. We are living great times! Cellist Andreas Wohlmacher sounds remarkably full toned and precise, Werner Andreas Albert and his orchestra play all the notes, at tempos close to the score's metronome marks (overall slightly slower in the slow movement, which might have benefited from a marginally more flowing pace), and they are not wanting in power. Now I'd love to hear an alternative version, that would take it a little more in the Toscanini manner: more bite, forward movement, not so much relaxing of tempo in the more lyrical sections to keep the tension high. But I doubt that this will ever happen, and this set is more than serviceable.