Ggoltermann Cello Concerto No 1 Symphony Op 20 Capriccio

Georg Goltermann (1824-1898)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, op. 14
Romance in A minor, op. 60 No. 1 (1870, orch. 1877)
Ballade in G major, op. 81 (1877)
Symphony in A minor, op. 20 (1851)
Jamal Aliyev (cello)
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Howard Griffiths
rec. 2022, Radio Kulturhaus, Vienna
Capriccio C5469 [60]

We are truly in a golden age for music of the German cellist/composer Georg Goltermann. Yes, I’m being facetious, but as far as my researches could tell, until last year there were no recordings solely dedicated to his music, and now there are two. The first was a collection of romances and nocturnes for cello and piano (MSR Classics MS1673 – review), and now we have some of his orchestral works.

Let me restate what I wrote about his life in the earlier review: “Born in Hanover, he studied cello there and in Munich, where he was also taught composition by Franz Lachner. He had a brief career as a concert soloist, before spending most of his working life in Frankfurt at the Stadttheater, eventually rising to the post of Chief Conductor.”

The A minor cello concerto is one of eight that Goltermann composed, presumably for his own performance. According to the Wikipedia page, the fourth (op. 65 in G major) is apparently popular with students, as it is relatively simple. Perhaps because of this, no professional soloists have deigned to record it. Indeed, the performance here of the A minor is only the second recording of a full concerto, the first being a long-since deleted version of No. 3 on an obscure Spanish label. The only other trace of his orchestral music is the slow movement from No. 1, recorded by both Casals (review) and Salmond (review), both more than ninety years ago.

Given my mixed reaction to the disc of nocturnes and romances – my reservations were more about the overall effect as the pieces were individually enjoyable – I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed by the four works presented here as I was. True, none of them is a masterpiece, and there are definitely opportunities for playing “spot the influence”, but they are all very well-crafted, thoroughly entertaining, and occasionally inspired. 

The first surprise came in the first few bars of the orchestral introduction to the concerto: it sounded so much like something I knew well. When I searched my mental database, it came up with the opening to Hummel’s op. 85 Piano Concerto, also in A minor. The two works, with flowing high strings and a steady beat in the cellos and basses, are very much peas in a pod, at least for the first minute or so. I’m not suggesting that Goltermann borrowed from the earlier work – who knows whether he was even aware of it – just that their openings share a common feel. Given my love for the Hummel, this was a very good sign for the Goltermann, and so it continued through the seventeen minutes which comprise the entire work. I believe that that brevity is a big reason for its success: so many composers of the lower ranks didn’t grasp the idea of “less is more” and resorted to empty note-spinning in the absence of ideas. None of the movements on this disc goes beyond ten minutes; Goltermann clearly appreciated that his ability to formulate a substantial musical structure was limited and concentrated his efforts into small packages. Throughout, he fills the work with melodies that may not stay in the mind, but they are lovely in the hearing, and gives the soloist plenty of virtuosic sequences (this isn’t a student work). It’s not easy to provide a pointer to the style, there being no well-known 19th century cello concertos before the Schumann, which this definitely doesn’t resemble. The Hummel reference, and the idea that Goltermann was more comfortable looking back is probably the best I can do.

The Romance and Ballade (for cello and orchestra, the former an arrangement of one of the pieces on last year’s MSR disc) are both yearning and soulful, and more obviously of the Romantic era than the two larger works that flank them. 

The Symphony, the third of the works in the key of A minor, is receiving its first recording here. It was premiered in Leipzig, and I think that is quite significant, because it owes much to the memory of the recently deceased Felix Mendelssohn, in particular his Scottish Symphony. It was very well-received by public and reviewers. I was amused by a quote in the notes from a newspaper report of the premiere, which stated that even in 1851, critics were bemoaning that the quality of melody was no longer being adequately appreciated by composers (but Goltermann was excused from this criticism). 

After an extended slow and sombre opening, the symphony bursts into scurrying Mendelssohnian rhythms, and similar hints continue throughout. I am fairly confident that he would have known his Mendelssohn, so the kinship to the Third Symphony cannot be a coincidence. I don’t think that detracts from it; Mendelssohn was a genius after all, and modelling your work on the product of such genius isn’t a bad way to learn. I can find no suggestion that Goltermann wrote any more symphonies, so he may have felt that he couldn’t find his own voice in such a format. Nevertheless, we are left with a really enjoyable piece, that if you heard without knowing its background, you might imagine that someone had uncovered a lost Mendelssohn work (perhaps one he discarded because it wasn’t up to his usual standards).

I’d not heard of Turkish cellist Jamal Aliyev before, but he has performed at the Proms and won a number of prizes at international competitions. It is not hard to see why; he is very good, giving these little-known works his fullest efforts. Under the assured direction of Howard Griffiths, such a champion of the unsung composer, the ORF Vienna orchestra sound superb. My only quibble with the sound quality was the occasional sharp intake of breath from Aliyev (but hey, he’s got to breathe).

This is one of those unsung composer discs that really does “sing”. Goltermann might not have had the most original of compositional voices, but he knew how to write concentrated, melodic pieces, and now we know that even in the mid-19th century, melody was in short supply (what would those critics have thought of the 20th century, I wonder?).

David Barker

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