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Robert VOLKMANN (1815-1883)
String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Op. 9 (1847) [35:51]
String Quartet No. 2 in G minor, Op. 14 (1847) [25:11]
String Quartet No. 3 in G major, Op. 34 (1857) [27:47]
String Quartet No. 4 in E minor, Op. 35 (1857) [23:42]
String Quartet No. 5 in F minor, Op. 37 (1859) [22:13]
String Quartet No. 6 in E flat major, Op. 43 (1863) [26:37]
Piano Trio in F major, Op. 3 (1842/3) [25:21]
Piano Trio in B flat minor, Op. 5 (1850) [27:47]
Mannheimer Streichquartett
Beethoven Trio Ravensburg
rec. 1992-1994, various venues
CPO 5551822 [4 CDs: 216:34]

CPO have made sterling efforts to champion the music of Robert Volkmann, a composer otherwise unjustly neglected. Over the years they’ve released recordings of his serenades, orchestral music, lieder and piano duets. The six string quartets and two piano trios here were previously issued in separate volumes, and they've now been collected together and boxed up in this 4 CD set. This seems to be a trend with the company who recently reissued their 1998 Braunfels String Quartets recording, which I had the pleasure of reviewing a couple of months ago.

For those unfamiliar with his name, Volkmann was born in Lommatzsch, near Meissen, in April 1815. Musically gifted, his earliest studies were with his father, who tutored him on the organ and piano. Shortly after he learned the violin and cello, becoming proficient enough to play the cello parts in string quartets by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. In 1882 he entered the Freiberg Gymnasium intending to be a teacher, but excelling in his musical studies he was encouraged to change direction. He moved to Leipzig to study with Carl Ferdinand Becker, and here became friends with Robert Schumann, who also recognized his talents. A spell of teaching in Prague was followed by a move to Budapest in 1841, where he worked as a piano teacher and a reporter for the Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung. In 1854 he moved for a short period to Vienna, returning to Budapest in 1858, where he remained for the rest of his life. Here he dedicated his life to composition. In addition, from 1875 until his death in 1883, he was professor of harmony and counterpoint at Budapest's National Academy of Music.

If you like the string quartets of Mendelssohn and Schumann, then I can guarantee you'll enjoy Volkmann's. The first two quartets date from 1847. No. 1 was penned in Pest and published after his move to Vienna in 1854. The Largo introduction to the opening movement is filled with pathos and melancholy, but this soon gives way to an animated Allegro. There's no doubting that the Adagio 2nd movement, at 14 minutes, is the emotional heart of the work, again doleful and introspective. A Presto follows which gallops along in true equestrian manner. The energetic finale is dispatched with verve and vigour. The Second Quartet was actually composed before the First but only found a publisher later. It was dedicated to the Hellmesberger Quartet of Vienna, who played a large part in introducing the composer's quartets to the public. An impulsive first movement and Scherzo third frame a lyrically charming Andante.  The impassioned finale is ushered in by a reflective Andantino.

Fast forward ten years and we have String Quartets 3 and 4. Volkmann is in more relaxed mood for these. Here he opts for geniality and charm. In No. 3 I much preferred the outer movements to the inner ones for their melodic generosity. I can't agree with the booklet writer that No. 4 is the most instantly appealing of the set. The first movement is lyrical but nondescript. The buoyant rhythm of the Scherzo is catchy, and the brief slow movement has a Haydnesque feel about it. The quartet ends with a brisk finale, the least attractive movement and tedious, in my view.

By 1859 when the String Quartet No. 5 in F minor, Op. 37 was composed, the composer had come on leaps and bounds in terms of maturity. The quartet is the only one in three movements, and a more serious vein runs throughout. It’s certainly my favorite, and the central slow movement puts one in mind of Beethoven's mature works, such is the nobility, tight construction and economic handling of musical material. The outer movements are powerful and pack a punch. The 6th Quartet is Volkmann's last word in the medium, and it dates from 1863. It doesn't reach the lofty heights of its predecessor, but is attractive none the less. It opens with a “Mannheim rocket”, a swiftly ascending melodic figure which forges the upbeat mood for the rest of the movement. The first violin takes centre stage for the enchanting Larghetto. A spry Scherzo follows before the two-part final movement, an eloquent Andantino introduction to a busy, scurrying perpetuum mobile.

These are immensely satisfying readings by the Mannheimer Streichquartett, who make a compelling case for these captivating scores. Their performances are informed by intelligent musicianship, fire and passion and they clearly have a great love for the music. They are aided by beautifully balanced recordings

The two Piano Trios are early works, and those in the know regard them as two of his finest compositions. The F major, Op. 3 dates from 1842-43 but was not published until 1852 in Budapest. Classically structured, it bears the influences of Beethoven and Schubert, especially in the second movement Scherzo. The first movement is introduced on the piano. The violin and cello enter with a heartfelt melody, with the music becoming animated and passionate. The piano writing is virtuosic and almost Schumanesque in its romantic fervour. A Scherzo follows. The lyrically endowed Andante has a moving tenderness, whilst the finale presses ahead with burning intensity. This trio only came to the publisher’s attention because of the success of the Piano trio in B flat minor, Op. 5. This later trio was composed in 1850, winning the praise of both Franz Liszt and Hans Von Bülow for its unconventional form and adventurous chromatic harmony. Indeed the composer dedicated it to Liszt.  Unlike its predecessor this later work is cast in three movements only. It begins with a melancholic Largo. A light-hearted Ritornell follows, sprightly and affable. The third movement is a lengthy affair, with material from the other movements recalled. It has a fairly loosely-knit structure, with sections of it having echoes of Mendelssohn. The Beethoven Trio Ravensburg's enthusiastic and inspired readings are alert and convincing, and their performances have been captured in first-class sound.

Stephen Greenbank



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