Forgotten Treasures, Vol. 05: Bernhard Romberg - Willens
Ars Produktion ARS 38 026
Classical - Orchestral
Bernhard Romberg: Trauer-Symphonie, Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3
Michael Alexander Willens (conductor)
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Review by Adrian Quanjer - August 27, 2015
This disk is the fifth one in the series ‘Forgotten Treasures’ of ARS Produktion. In several other releases Micheal Alexander Willens has shown his almost magic talent to make compositions of forgotten composers sound better than they actually are. What about this one?
Bernhard Romberg comes from a musical family and his 80 or so compositions reveal a talent for the technicalities of this ‘métier’ inside out. During his life time he was recognized as one of the better pre-romantic composers, as, in fact, many others, who were soon forgotten thereafter.
His contemporary fame may also have been inspired by the fact that he was a cellist of renown, made several innovations in cello design and wrote an instructive manual for cello students entitled: ‘Violoncell Schule'. Study material is where, at present, for many music lovers their knowledge of his extensive ‘oeuvre’ ends. Indeed, with some exceptions, notably his sonatas for violoncello, some assorted chamber and solo pieces, as well as -with works of his brother Andreas- a disk with his 2nd cello concerto, few recordings exist; this one included.
Can Willens lift these three symphonies out of oblivion? The short answer is: Yes.
When this disk was released (2007) it received some raving comments, be it that they mostly came from the regional press. No review has appeared on this site and I think that it deserves some wider acknowledgement. The more so, because the exemplary recording (which applies, by the way, to practically all releases in this series) makes it already a paramount choice for High Resolution addicts. But there is more.
Saying that, in comparison to Ludwig van Beethoven, Romberg is no more than a second rate composer, is too simple and not altogether true. Fact is, however, that these three symphonies are not of equal quality. The first, Op. 23, a funeral symphony for Queen Louise von Preussen, is surprisingly well constructed, but the other two, written towards the end of his creative life, show lapses in compositional skill. Especially the third, having the Opus number 53, has some weak moments. Its printed score can be dated to 1830, but the fact that the clarinets were missing, which, for him, was unusual, suggests that it has been written much earlier. It has, furthermore, 4 movements with a slow introduction, reminiscent of the classical period. More Haydn than Beethoven, one might say. A possible explanation is that this symphony has been composed long before but was kept on the shelf for various reasons: It may even have been a first attempt to compose a work of symphonic stature.
Coming to the longer answer to my earlier question: Willens did it not alone. It is in essence a combined effort in which musicians and sound engineers take their fair share. Under the inspiring leadership of Willens the players of the Kölner Akademie give their best, coming to full bloom; making up for some not so brilliant bits, putting extra luster on what in less capable hands might have been a bleak affair. Not an easy job, especially in the third symphony, with awkward orchestration and orchestral sound. The sound engineers captured, recorded and mixed the typical, not so velvety ‘period’ sound in well detailed, nothing concealing surround, thus creating exciting ‘life’ in the music.
However, in the final analysis it is, for me, the kind of witchcraft, of which Michael Alexander Willens holds the key, that turns the symphonic output of this ‘forgotten’ composer into an event that should not be missed by those who want to discover more of this ‘in between Haydn and Beethoven’ period, and perhaps a must for libraries, music schools and (public) radio stations; Romberg could not have found better advocates than these combined forces.
As for the liner notes: Bert Hagels gives us a host of information which is hard to find elsewhere.
Post Scriptum: Many recordings are supported by institutions, companies or banks. In this particular case it is Ruud van Ommeren, a Dutch national who deserves to be named, because his driving force is not publicity but his love for (classical) music. And if I have been informed correctly, he has a private collection at his home town, Nijmegen, The Netherlands, of (some) of the paintings of which the covers in this series were taken. We need more of those Maecenas. Chapeau, Mr van Ommeren!
Blangy le Château, Normandy, France
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