Rosenberg Violin Concerto no. 1, op. 22

performed by Charles Barkel, violin, and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hilding Rosenberg (although the YouTube video lists Tor Mann as conductor, I’m almost positive it’s under the composer’s baton)

(cover image by Geoffrey Datema)

Rosenberg’s first violin concerto dates from 1924, and aside from a suite for violin and orchestra, is the first concertante work he wrote for any instrument. His trumpet concerto would come four years later, in 1928, and the (incomplete) piano concerto in 1930, with the first completed one in 1950, a year before his second violin concerto.

I know absolutely nothing else about this work, so… this will likely be a short, weak article, but after having given weeks’ worth of attention to Mozart and Beethoven, I think we can stand to give some time to such an obscure work, and maybe even get up on a little soapbox about reviving interest in some of these difficult-to-find pieces. Whether that interest is merited is another question entirely.

In 1924, the year of this composition, Rosenberg was in his early 30s, and had written his first symphony (and one before it which was withdrawn), the suite for violin and orchestra, his first two string quartets, and a few other chamber pieces.

Since I’m really struggling to have any information to share in this article, let’s talk momentarily about Charles Barkel, the violinist for this recording. He was Swedish, born in 1896, and died in March 1973 in Stockholm. He was also a professor of music at the Royal College of Music starting in 1926, and two years later founded the eponymous Barkel Quartet. He was also elected in 1946 as a member of the Royal Academy of Music, and that’s about it.

So this piece is, uniquely, in five movements, and has a playing time of close to half an hour:

  1. Moderato
  2. Allegro robustamente
  3. Lento e cantabile
  4. Vivace
  5. Allegro risoluto

This recording of this piece is to my knowledge the only one that exists. The YouTube upload refers to it being (I think) a radio broadcast, and the Rosenberg Plays Rosenberg album on Spotify might be exactly that. What it does tell us is that it was recorded before 1973, hence the less than stellar audio quality. Let’s take a quick run-through of the piece and see what else I can come up with to talk about!

(Actually, instead of pretending like I knew this all along, I’ll add it here. Presto Classical tells me it was recorded on December 13, 1948.)

The moderato first movement is mysterious, or ominous, or something. I do wonder if there’s more in the piece that we’re not getting in such a warbly recording. We’re only twenty years removed from Sibelius’ violin concerto, but this is of a new era. This first movement is the longest in the work, and the violin enters after a melancholy introduction with no bombast or fanfare, but quickly presents a cadenza, which is a foregleam of things to come, as the soloist does give us some theatrics, but it is by and large of a melancholy, pensive mood.

I do wonder, though, how much of a warm, full orchestra sound we may be missing at certain points in this piece. There are few points of relief in the first movement where the sort of unsure tension breaks and we have a sigh of relief, but by and large, this longest movement would, were it not the longest movement, feel like a sort of prelude, or intermezzo, were it not the first movement.

Aha! The ‘robust’ allegro second movement. Now for some excitement, especially from horns, like war cries. Now we’re getting somewhere, sort of. The violin is more aggressive, the opening theme here almost march-like. There’s another cadenza, this one yet more virtuosic, and some interesting orchestral passages I wish were in even mildly better sound quality. There’s finally something more rousing toward the end of this movement, initiated by the soloist, leading to a commanding close.

The third movement is nearly as long as the first, and returns to a similarly subdued atmosphere, but with less of the nervous unsureness, and a bit more warmth and expressiveness, with the latter part of the movement offering a soft tenderness.

The vivace fourth movement is the shortest of the work, and is indeed very fast. It’s what you may consider as the scherzo of the work, but even then it isn’t wildly obvious that it is; it’s just more lively, with a more heartfelt middle section that contrasts with the near-violence of the opening, and the movement ends with some quiet chirps.

The ‘risoluto’ finale is another I’d wish to hear (well, the whole thing really) in a rich, clean modern recording. There are brighter moments here, and longer cadenza passages, one of which clearly draws us to the very end of the movement, and the piece as a whole, but by this point, looking back over our shoulder at the half-hour journey we’ve taken, where have we gotten? Where did we go?

I’ll say that barely even two or three times do I get the sense in this piece (or in this garbled recording of it) that there’s something I must come back and explore. Even with Schoenberg’s piano concerto, a piece I couldn’t bear to listen to for sometime, I kept getting drawn back to it, trying again, like mining for gems I knew were there. To be blunt, I get no such feeling from this work. There are a few glimpses of what seems like it would be a more solid idea, something that would approach greatness, but very little comes together for me, and I’m okay saying that because this is a young work for Rosenberg. As we saw from his second quartet (albeit revised decades later) and his second symphony coming up later this week, he’s a perfectly capable composer, and shows us here that he has at least some flair for writing for the violin. This piece, to me, just has a lack of … something: spirit, inspiration, focus? I don’t know.

All that being said, I am glad we have a recording of it, no matter how old, and maybe after digesting more of his later work, I’ll come to a greater appreciation of this first endeavor of his. I will say some of his violin writing is impressively ornate, although I don’t know how natural or nightmarish it may be for the performer.

That’s all we’ll say about that for now. Questions for personal reflection can be those about reviving works like this for performance and recording that are neglected/obscure, and whether or not that is for good reason. ‘Do we need another recording of Beethoven’s violin concerto, or would the world be better off with just one decent recording of this (or another obscure) concerto?

Rosenberg returns Thursday with a fantastic piece I look forward to discussing, so stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.

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