Fanfare Magazine  (https://fanfarearchive.com)
3.0 out of 5 stars – Convincing performances; one masterpiece; the other compositions are uneven

November 17, 2019

Myron Silberstein, Fanfare magazine

Julius Röntgen is likely to be an unfamiliar name to many of Fanfare’s readers. A founder of the Amsterdam Conservatory and a friend of Grieg, Röntgen’s career as a composer spanned over half a century, and he was lauded by the great musicologist Donald Francis Tovey as “an inspiration for the future … with a link to the past.” His works include 25 symphonies, numerous concertos, five cello sonatas, and a significant body of work for piano. This recording is the fourth volume in Mark Anderson’s survey of Röntgen’s work. Anderson is a longtime champion of obscure Romantic music, having recorded a well-received disc of works by Hans von Bülow (reviewed by Lynn René Bayley in 36:1). As Nimbus’s promotional video interview with Anderson makes clear, Anderson’s interest in these marginal figures is a direct outgrowth of his immersion in the works of Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, which he has recorded frequently over the past two decades. In preparation for the current recording, Anderson corresponded with Röntgen’s grandson Jurriaan, explored the archives of the Nederlands Muziek Instituut, and created a performance edition of Röntgen’s unpublished Sonata in C Minor. This level of contextual awareness and original scholarship is evident in playing that is deservedly self-assured and that makes an eloquent case for Röntgen’s music.


Much of the music on this recording strikes me as wholly in the world of Brahms and Schumann, with occasional overlaps with Chopin and Liszt. The main theme of Röntgen’s Third Ballade, for example, a grumbling series of stern bass triplets, shares a great deal with the second theme in the last of Brahms’s op. 119 Piano Pieces—and it’s quite possible that the two pieces were written around the same time without either composer being aware of it. Similarly, the lilting second theme of Röntgen’s First Ballade, with its offbeat accents and two-note phrases, bears a significant resemblance both harmonically and rhythmically to the bucolic second theme of Chopin’s Third Ballade. And the stark triplet octaves that recur throughout Röntgen’s Second Ballade play much the same emotional role as the similar gestures in Liszt’s Second Mephisto Waltz. Even when he’s aiming for novelty, as in the bitonal Sérénade mélancholique, Röntgen’s instincts are those of his predecessors; the Sérénade’s undulating bass dyads with their internal chromatic motion are strongly evocative of Chopin’s Prelude in A Minor.

But this is not to say that Röntgen is derivative of any of these canonic composers. His instincts are similar. His level of inspiration is not quite as elevated as Brahms or Chopin, so his pursuit of similar instincts is not quite as effective. But his craftsmanship is impeccable—far better than many second-tier composers—and it is a pleasure to listen to all the pieces on this recording. A pleasure, not a transformative experience—but if you don’t feel like plunging into the depths of Brahms’s late works, Röntgen’s music is serious, sincere, and firmly in that sound world without demanding quite the emotional commitment from the listener that Brahms does.

On this program, I find two exceptions to that assessment. One is the Sonata in C Minor. Composed in 1928, it is a considerably later piece than most of the repertoire on this recording. Röntgen explores Scriabinesque, sparse, enigmatic harmonies in the opening, alternating with thicker, Rachmaninoffian howls of despair. The central section is a filigree-rich pastorale reminiscent of Grieg’s “Morning Mood.” These three themes alternate in starling juxtaposition, but Röntgen doesn’t develop these themes, so the effect of the sonata is of a series of tableaux rather than of a convincing musical argument. Though it is perhaps the most harmonically intriguing of the works on the disc, I find it the least effective.
But the other exception, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by J. P. E. Hartmann, is a sophisticated, subtle, large-scale architectural triumph in the finest tradition of the Romantic variation cycle. The development over the first three variations from the somber chorale theme to the angry thick chords of the fourth variation feels inevitable without being predictable. Far too many sets of variations, even by such masters as Beethoven, begin by accompanying the theme with eighth notes, then with triplets, then with 16ths—but Röntgen’s, though pursuing a similar course of intensification, develops these initial variations emotionally as well as rhythmically. The central major-key variations are extraordinarily tender and constitute a searching exploration of the theme’s possibilities, from the fragmented melodic elements in the Sixth Variation to the straightforward arioso treatment of the Seventh, and from the Brahmsian yearning of the Eighth to the flowing warmth of the Ninth. The final variations portend a traditional virtuoso culmination but lead instead to a deeply introspective fugue, reminiscent of (but again, not derivative of) the central tableau of Franck’s Prelude, Fugue, and Variation. In its range of emotion, its comprehensiveness of thematic exploration, and its conviction of musical argument, I would rank this piece alongside Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses and Schubert’s Introduction and Variations on Trockne Blumen. At nearly 18 minutes, it takes up nearly a third of the program, and would make the recording well worth purchasing even though the other items on it do not rise to its level.
An excellent, full piano sound with microphones placed far enough away from the piano to avoid the damper noise and string vibrations that mar so many other recordings is an added bonus. So is Mark Anderson’s playing, which I have not described in detail because it communicates the music so authoritatively that it is hard to imagine it presented any other way.
________________________________

http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2019/Mar/Rontgen_piano_v4_NI5975.htm

Julius RÖNTGEN (1855-1932)
Piano Music – Volume 4
Impromptu (1910) [4:18]
Ballade No. 1 in D minor, Op. 6 (1873) [7:07]
Ballade No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 (1883) [7:56]
Ballade No. 3 in E minor “Jotunheim” (1912 pub. 2004) [7:11]
Sonata in C Sharp minor (1928) [8:55]
Sérénade mélancholique (pub. 1910) [4:35]
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.P.E. Hartmann, Op. 38 (1895) [17:41]
Mark Anderson (piano)
rec. 2018, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
NIMBUS NI5975 [57:38]

This disc, like the rest of this series, present works composed over a range of fifty-five years, and as such, the listener can build a better picture of the composer and his music. Only one of the discs in this set, Volume 2, has stuck to music composed during a short period, with the other three offering a wide variety of compositional dates and styles of pieces.

The disc opens with the rocking motif of Röntgen’s Impromptu in E flat Major; this was the third of his impromptus, however the other two are now lost. The opening theme soon develops into a more agitated section that is reminiscent of Schumann, before returning to the opening motif, ending, after a brief recap, on the central theme with hushed restatement of the opening.

At the heart of this disc are the three Ballades which were composed over a thirty-nine-year period, with each of the three being deeply romantic in style. The first is dedicated to Professor H. S. Oakeley, who was the first to see the potential of the composer after having seen the thirteen-year-old performing his own music. This Ballade opens with the statement of the main theme in the left hand, before the right joins in with the same theme, this then leads to the right hand playing a rippling effect over the theme in the left. Then the rhythmic second theme enters briefly, before merging with the original theme in a more powerful reassertion of the first theme. The Ballade in G minor was composed at a busy period for Röntgen, as in the same year he had co-founded the Amsterdam Conservatory and had a major role in the foundation of the Concertgebouw the following year. More animated than the first Ballade, the music is more dramatic, with its main theme being almost like an overture for piano, or even a programmatic piece depicting a storm, giving way to a calmer section before the main theme remerges. The third and final Ballade in E minor seems to have been inspired by Röntgen’s visit to the Jotunheim region of Norway in 1891 with his good friend Edvard Grieg. The music is marked by the sweeping melodic lines of the main theme and a chorale-like second theme which battle for supremacy before merging into music born out of the two, before the chorale second theme makes a final statement in the run in to the end of the piece.

The single movement Sonata in C Sharp minor is more of a sonatina, with its three distinct sections lasting less that nine minutes; it was never published and is here performed in an edition prepared by Mark Anderson and is available as a published score. It first section opens quietly and is almost subdued, before this gives way to a more powerful and melodic, yet understated, theme before the themes alternate with each other. The second section has a charming lilting theme which gives way to the more energetic and dramatic music of the third section which, in turn, gives way to music from the opening and ends quietly.

The Sérénade mélancholique is a lovely piece that inhabits the sound world of the slow movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar, with its quasi-middle-eastern dotted rhythm prevailing throughout the work. The result is charming and semi hypnotic, with its rippling thematic material in the left hand forming the basis of the piece.

The longest and most adventurous of the pieces presented on this disc is the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.P.E. Hartmann. Whilst the otherwise excellent booklet notes do not state from which of Hartmann’s works it originates, it does provide the subtitle of the work which is taken from the opening words of the Agnus Dei of the Catholic Mass, with the opening theme being suitably solemn. This is followed by no less than fourteen variations of various brilliance and intensity, with the final one setting up well the fugal section. The Fugue restates the theme and then cleverly and interestingly builds upon this material before the final dramatic restatement of the theme brings the work to its conclusion.

This is an interesting and worthy addition to any collection of late romantic piano music and especially to the collection of anyone interested in the music of Julius Röntgen. It is passionately performed by Mark Anderson who seems to be working his way through the complete piano works for Nimbus, and is a wonderful addition to their series. The recorded sound is, like the other recordings, very good, with the natural acoustic of the Wyastone Leys music room helping to bring out the best from this music.

Stuart Sillitoe

_______________________________

MusicWeb International – Jonathan Welsh

http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2019/Oct/Rontgen_piano_v4_NI5975.htm

Julius RÖNTGEN (1855-1932)
Piano Music – Volume 4
Impromptu (1910) [4:18]
Ballade No. 1 in D minor, Op. 6 (1873) [7:07]
Ballade No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 (1883) [7:56]
Ballade No. 3 in E minor “Jotunheim” (1912 pub. 2004) [7:11]
Sonata in C Sharp minor (1928) [8:55]
Sérénade mélancholique (pub. 1910) [4:35]
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.P.E. Hartmann, Op. 38 (1895) [17:41]
Mark Anderson (piano)
rec. 2018, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
NIMBUS NI5975 [57:38]

I must confess that I’ve been following this series since it began and I’ve been very impressed with all of the discs so far. Röntgen has enjoyed something of a resurgence in popularity with record companies over the last few years; to name two: CPO are working their way through the symphonies and Toccata have started a chamber music series as well. I, for one, am happy about this as I have always found his music interesting and worthwhile to get to know.

Volume 4 begins with a very short and virtuosic Impromptu. It’s difficult to categorise this but some of it seems to inhabit the same sort of sound world as Brahms’s late piano pieces and to my ears, most especially the Rhapsody from Op.119. There is also some influence of Liszt in the more difficult passages. The piece starts innocently enough before building quickly to a virtuosic conclusion. There are some strange off key chords throughout the work which add harmonic interest and there is also plenty for the pianist to do. It’s a world away from Chopin’s works of the same name. I rather like the pleading passages heard around 2’10’’ before a return of the modified opening theme. Although this theme is happy there is an underlying menace in the music; even the ending, which is quiet and reflective, has dark rumblings in the bass.

Next follow the Ballades of which there are three, separated by almost forty years in the composer’s life. His style altered a little in this time period but the 3rd of these works is still late romantic with hints of Liszt and Brahms. The first Ballade is really rather charming and contains some attractive music and some considerable difficulties for the pianist. There are some strange harmonies here too, some of them quite unexpected for the time the piece was written (1873). Generally, the work flows along smoothly with a central choppier variation from around three minutes in. These two main themes are developed nicely as the work progresses and alternated with one another to give the piece a sort of ABA structure and the ending, like the Impromptu, is slightly mysterious in character. The second Ballade, from 10 years later, opens much more violently and is in a modified sonata form. This is a real work out for the pianist with lots of heavy left hand passages and plenty of octaves sprinkled liberally throughout. By this stage, Röntgen’s style had evolved slightly and the writing is much more assured. This is young mans’ music, full of power and passion. The central section is still agitated but much quieter than the opening and is beautifully played and phrased here – there are some lovely touches in the right hand with filigree ornamentation accompanying the tune in the left hand. This relative calm doesn’t last long as the pounding octaves and questing theme return and eventually lead to a more settled section with some interesting off key harmonies. These sink into the bass registers of the piano before the main theme returns with a bang. It is an exciting 7 or so minutes with lots of interest throughout. Marvellous. The third of the Ballades dates from much later in the composer’s life but wasn’t published until 2004. This starts mysteriously with a theme in the bass which is shunted up the keyboard and modified. Here I am able to detect similarities with the piano works of Dohnányi who was heavily influenced by Brahms as well. After the turbulent opening, the second theme is more hymn like and rather touching but it is interrupted by triplet figures as the opening music re-establishes itself rather forcibly. The piece after this point generally grows in stature and power leading to a very loud, fast and exciting conclusion. There is an awful lot of super music packed into these three 7 to 8 minute pieces and they are certainly well worth hearing. There are also some very memorable themes that will stick in your mind long after the disc has stopped playing.

The following piece is another later work and a Sonata in one movement, never published during the composer’s lifetime. The opening notes are quite strange. They seem to be in no key at all but the piece develops out of these into some really sorrowful music played excellently. After this dark and sombre opening, about three minutes in, a more wistful tune emerges which pinwheels around the keyboard with lots of wonderful right hand figurations. There is an underlying sense of unease though and it ends with an abrupt series of chords which lead to an impassioned section that forms the last “movement” of the sonata. There is some strange writing here before the earlier themes are intertwined and developed and the work ends somewhat surprisingly very quiet, low down in the registers of the piano. This is an interesting piece, full of contrast and packing a lot into its short length. I think this is probably my favourite piece on the disc and it is marvellously played by Mr. Anderson.

The penultimate work on the disc is entitled Sérénade mélancholique and is the most harmonically adventurous on the whole disc. The whole piece seems not to be in any key at all and the strange rocking rhythm in the left hand combined with the dotted rhythm in the right creates an off kilter, very creepy effect. This is a highly strange and effective work, the key signature only resolving itself properly in the last thirty seconds. It is played here with exemplary skill and feeling.

The final piece on this disc is the longest piece on it, the Variations and Fugue on a theme by JPE Hartmann – another obscure 19th century composer whose music is well worth investigating. This work is comprised of 14 variations and a final fugue. The opening theme, about a minute in duration and marked Lento espressivo, is rather touching. It is varied initially into a song without words from which elements are taken to generate the second variation. The third variation is equally charming, with some “questing” writing for the main theme in the right hand. This is quickly dispelled in the following Energico, which doesn’t last very long and dovetails nicely into the following very Brahms like variation. Variations 6, 7, 8 and 9 are generally slow in nature but evolve harmonically. There is some very cleverly written and lovely music here. Variation 10 is a very expressive little piece with some gorgeous touches as the theme is modified in both form and key. The final few variations (numbers 11 – 14) are mostly louder, more powerful and serve as an impressive lead up to the final fugue. This starts quietly and meditatively but grows in stature and virtuosity to a very powerful four voice fugue, ending robustly with a single statement of the opening theme. It is a fascinating piece of writing, well worth hearing, containing much music of interest and showing how talented a composer Röntgen was. As an aside, I’d really like to hear a concert programme entirely comprised of variations and fugues – it could include this work plus (for example) Beethoven’s Eroica variations (Op.35), Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a theme of Telemann (Op.134 – or the Bach, Op.81) and Brahms’s Handel Variations (Op.24). This would be a good way of making this fascinating composer’s name better known.

The sound quality is superb throughout and the cover notes are interesting, providing further detail about this very unjustly neglected composer. It’s great that Nimbus have brought this rare and interesting repertoire into the public domain so well and given the pianist Mark Anderson the chance to record it. I hope this series will continue with some of Röntgen’s other piano works – there are many to choose from as he was an extremely prolific composer.

Jonathan Welsh

By | 2019-11-30T22:51:02+00:00 November 12th, 2019|Recordings|