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Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, March 2012

Written in 1871, the concerto is in three movements and obviously owes a debt to Robert Schumann’s… More specifically the thematic material has the same catchy angularity found in the older composer’s music. But when it comes to bravura displays for the soloist and colorful orchestration, Wilhelm easily outdoes Robert.

That’s true right from the maestoso opening where a brilliant brass fanfare introduces some demanding passages for the soloist. These give him a chance to strut his stuff, and hint at the main idea soon to come. It’s a memorable melody having a tessitura ideally suited to the cello, and is followed by another more relaxed theme. The two undergo a virtuosic development that includes cadenza-like pronouncements, and a lovely harp-embellished bridge right into the next andante movement.

This is a delectable aria for the cello with more colorful harp embroidery in addition to woodwind decorations, and a couple of emotional outbursts reminiscent of Tchaikovsky. It ends with a leading tone on the cello anticipating the first note of the final allegro, which follows almost immediately.

This could be considered the recapitulation we never got in the first movement as the thematic material is drawn from there. But Fitzenhagen cleverly reworks it, gives the soloist a killer cadenza, and then ends the work with a thrilling coda recalling the concerto’s opening measures.

Seven of his occasional pieces for cello and piano probably dating from the early 1880s are next. These are in some ways comparable to those of another famous cellist-composer of the day, Czech-born David Popper… However, unlike his music Wilhelm’s has a seriousness of purpose that would make it misleading to label it as salon fare.

Elegie has a tenebrous Slavic urgency worthy of Tchaikovsky, while the A-B-A structured Capriccio gives the cello contrasting roles. It flits along in the outer sections like some bumblebee over a Magyar-sounding piano accompaniment worthy of Liszt (1811-1886). But sings a gracefully amorous cantilena in the inner one.

The next three numbers, Serenade, Gavotte and Impromptu, could well be derived from folk sources. They are successively imploring, sprightly with some sul ponticello, and tunefully flowing. Played sequentially as they are here, they could almost be considered a short suite.

The composer regularly attended church concerts sponsored by the Lutheran community in Moscow, and wrote a number of pieces for them. The Ave Maria which follows falls into that category, and adds a sacred dimension to the program.

But heavenly matters turn diabolical with the next selection, Dämonenfantasie (The Demon Fantasy), inspired by Anton Rubinstein’s…opera The Demon (1875), which was a big hit in its day. Employing melodies from it, Fitzenhagen’s fifteen-minute pastiche is an inventive “themes with variations.” The thrilling ending [track-10, beginning at 11:12] is based on the first dance sequence from the opera’s second act ballet, and gives the cellist an opportunity to show off his technical prowess.

This engaging release concludes with an encore that’s another version of the Ave Maria presented earlier. Originally written for either piano or harmonium accompaniment, this time around we get the latter, which is probably similar to what you would have heard in one of those Moscow church concerts.

Award-winning cellist Jens Peter Maintz’s performances include some stunning displays of virtuosity. But more importantly his attention to rhythmic and dynamic details ensures the concerto a place with the best in this genre, and guarantees the chamber pieces never degenerate into trite “salonery.”

Conductor Peter Rundel and the Munich Radio Orchestra provide him with superb support in the concerto. Keyboardist Paul Rivinius is the ideal accompanist in the chamber selections, displaying his own considerable technical abilities in the Capriccio as well as the demonic fantasy.

Coproduced with Bavarian Radio and recorded in one of their studios, the disc projects a perfectly proportioned soundstage for the concerto as well as the chamber pieces. In a slightly reverberant but warm acoustic, the cello is ideally balanced against the orchestra, and placed with respect to the piano/harmonium. Both soloists are convincingly captured and the orchestral timbre is totally natural, making this an immaculate sounding CD. Romantics and audiophiles will love it! © 2012 Classical Lost and Found Read complete review

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