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Bernhard Heinrich ROMBERG (1767 - 1841): "3 Grandes Sonates Op. 5"

Mikayel Balyan, fortepiano; Davit Melkonyan, cello

rec: Sept 11 - 14, 2012, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88883722872 (© 2013) (74'17")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Sonata in E flat, op. 5,1; Sonata in F, op. 5,2; Sonata in B flat, op. 5,3

The 19th century is the era of the great virtuosos, performers such as Nicolo Paganini and Franz Liszt. There had been virtuosos before, for instance Gottfried Reiche in Leipzig who played the trumpet parts in Bach's cantatas. But they seldom travelled across Europe to show their skills in public concerts. The latter was a phenomenon which gradually emerged and developed during the 18th century. Especially in the second half of the 18th century performers began to travel around to perform at platforms such as the Bach-Abel concerts in London and the Concert Spirituel in Paris. The composer to whom this disc is devoted was also a virtuoso who was celebrated across the continent and at the same time made a name for himself as a composer and as a teacher.

Bernhard Heinrich Romberg was born into a musical family. His father Bernhard Anton was a bassoonist and cellist and so was his brother Anton, whereas his sister Angelica was a soprano and a pianist. Bernhard's uncle Gerhard Heinrich was a clarinettist and violinist and the latter's son Andreas a violinist and composer. Bernhard learned the cello from his father and started to perform in the Netherlands and Germany; in 1785 he performed at the Concert Spirituel in Paris. From 1790 to 1792 he played in the electoral orchestra in Bonn, alongside his cousin and musicians such as Antonin Reicha and Ludwig van Beethoven. The latter would become his friend with whom he played together, for instance in Vienna where they performed Beethoven's sonatas for pianoforte and violin op. 5. In the years around 1800 he again travelled around and visited Boccherini in Madrid. In Paris he was appointed at the Conservatoire. During the next ten years or so he had several positions, but started again travelling around from 1819 to 1836. In 1839 he published his Méthode de violoncelle.

In his capacity as a composer Romberg wrote symphonies and overtures, ten cello concertos and six concertinos and some other orchestral pieces with solo parts for cello and for other instruments. His chamber music includes string quartets and trios, duos for violin and cello and the three sonatas op. 5. These were originally written for harp and cello, and published in 1803 by Érard in Paris. The sonatas were dedicated to Madame Moreau, the wife of a French military commander in Paris and an excellent pianist and harpist. It is notable that the cello part was offered in an alternative version for violin. In 1805 these sonatas were reprinted in Hamburg as sonatas for pianoforte and cello or violin, this time as op. 6.

For this performance Davit Melkonyan has extensively studied Romberg's treatise Méthode de violoncelle. He describes his findings in the booklet and attempts to apply them into his interpretations. Two aspects are particularly noteworthy. Romberg emphasizes that vibrato should not be used indiscriminately; he himself makes sparing use of it and indicates in the score where it should be applied. Secondly he states in regard to phrasing that "singing must be seen as a declamatory speech; here, the varying emphasis, the rising and falling of the voice and the voice's strenght and weakness all depend on the greater or less significance of an individual word or of part of a sentence". This is not fundamentally different from the practice of the 18th century and roots in the aesthetic of the baroque era. Romberg may have made "significant innovations to cello construction and technique", as Valerie Walden writes in New Grove, in many ways he was a classical rather than an early romantic composer. In his virtuosity and his activities as a performer he can be compared someone like Paganini, his compositions are firmly rooted in the classical style. His sonatas op. 5 bear witness to that. The andantes from the Sonata in E flat and the Sonata in B flat are eloquent examples. The former's first movement is an allegro which is preceded by an adagio, like many classical symphonies. It closes with a rather dramatic rondo. The same form is used in the closing movements of the other two sonatas. The adagio of the Sonata in F is particularly expressive.

It is ironic that Romberg played Beethoven's sonatas op. 5 with the composer at the pianoforte and only some years later published his own sonatas for the same scoring with the same opus number. Today Beethoven's op. 5 is frequently played and recorded, also on period instruments. One would wish that performers would turn their attention to Romberg's op. 5 instead. We probably have enough recordings of Beethoven's op. 5, but Romberg's is probably recorded here for the first time, at least on period instruments. These sonatas are well-constructed and compelling pieces, and receive a totally convincing interpretation from Mikayel Balyan and Davit Melkonyan. It all starts with them choosing the appropriate instruments. Melkonyan uses a cello made in Paris around 1820, a copy of a Stradivarius which was Romberg's preferred cello. He uses a Tourte bow from around 1800; Romberg was responsible for the introduction of the Tourte bow in Germany. Balyan plays a fortepiano from around 1815, built by Lagrassa. It is an instrument with Viennese action which seems to match the composer's taste. The title of the sonatas is printed correctly in the booklet: sonatas for fortepiano and cello, in that order. The editors of the booklet have listed the names of the performers in the reverse order - as usual - but fortunately they follow the indications in the title, and the recording engineer has understood that. The balance is just right: the pianoforte has the lead, but the cello has enough presence. The rhetorical principles which Romberg expressed in his treatise - as quoted above - are very well conveyed. Both players use their instruments to great effect, and I have not often heard such a beautiful and eloquent sound from a period cello in late classical repertoire.

In short, this is a highly interesting and musically impressive recording of music by a composer who deserves more attention that he has received so far.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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