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Julius RÖNTGEN (1855-1932)
Chamber Music: Right through the Bone
Quintet for Piano and Strings Op. 100 (1927) [16.35]
String Sextet (1931) [21.03]
Sonata for Viola and Piano in C minor (1924) [20.50]
Clarinet Trio (1921) [14.28]
Artists of the Royal Conservatory of Canada
rec. The Living Arts Centre, Mississauga, Ontario, 2-4 April 2007
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 88697158372 [73.12]
Experience Classicsonline

If you are puzzled, as I was, by the title of this CD then there is a logical explanation which is given at the beginning of the booklet notes. It was Julius’s cousin Conrad Röntgen (1845-1923) who discovered X-Rays, who won the Nobel Prize in 1901 and who ultimately transformed medical science. Knowledge of Conrad however led Grieg to say, after hearing a piece by Julius, that the music “went right to the bone”, hence the CD title. Although it seems to be just a clever remark it has more than a ray of truth!

The music of Julius Röntgen is just beginning to be noticed again after years of lying forgotten on dusty shelves. “Oh no,” you say, “Not another mediocre worthy dug out by musicians with nothing else to do.” Well if you think that then read on - indeed listen on - because I can tell you that this is very fine music indeed. The revival which is just beginning is worth every penny and every column inch spent on it. So let’s forget that this music was written when Bartók, Schoenberg and Ives were at their heights and take it with an innocent ear just as it comes. Indeed it may be more helpful to remember that Röntgen is almost an exact contemporary of Elgar. 

A few words of biography first. In 1924 Röntgen retired from public life to concentrate on composing. Although already quite prolific, many more works started to flow from him. He had studied in Leipzig, meeting Liszt and Franz Lachner, Carl Reinecke and Heinrich von Herzogenberg, but he made the surprising decision to live and work in Amsterdam. There, amongst other activities, he was one of the founders of the Concertgebouw and even more significantly he was instrumental in establishing the Amsterdam Conservatoire. He worked there not as a Director but as an accompanist and so he had time to compose. He also had influence as Director of an organization with the snappy title ‘The Society for the Promotion of Musical Arts’ which meant at that time much new music. 

You may fear that Brahms might have been a strong influence. Röntgen was the soloist in the first Dutch performance in 1884 of the master’s 2nd Piano Concerto under Brahms’s direction. After that Röntgen saw Brahms socially as it were for many years. Also Röntgen liked to work on quite large canvases, yet he is no clone of Brahms indeed there is much originality here. The ghostly and eerie second movement of the Viola Sonata’s outer section is like nothing else I can describe, and the finale has an occasional touch of Debussy about it. The initial impassioned Allegro has an opening idea which has remained with me for some days. The excellent booklet notes by Simon Wynberg mentions César Franck as an influence. 

The CD begins with a fine and arresting work: the Quintet for piano and strings. In its opening movement there is a restless and memorable idea, sextuplets or quadruplets in the piano and cello with the violins above singing a lovely melody canonically in the minor key. The melting sequences also give the music an unforgettable character. The compound time second movement, marked Allegro, is rhythmically memorable with a wonderful passage towards the end over an ostinato pedal building to the final bars. The slow movement is questing and exploratory at first until a cello melody answered by violin takes over with a melody which Borodin would have been proud of. At the end of the contrapuntal and at times fugal Con moto finale Röntgen quotes briefly his first movement opening and ends the piece in a questing atmosphere. 

The Clarinet Trio falls into three movements with an especially sunny initial movement. Brahms did come to my mind during this piece but none the worse for that. The main weight of the work rests on the finale with its memorable ‘Sostenuto’ opening suddenly transforming into a friendly Allegro commodo. It is the earliest work (1921) here and has the occasional Mendelssohnian touch in its lightness and sophistication. 

The String Sextet really has little in common with the two by Brahms although it is in a late-Romantic style. The first movement may remind one more of Max Reger; the booklet writer mentions Max Bruch. With the grace and ease of the second movement Andante we step gently into the world of Dvořák, except that the middle section is unexpectedly storm-tossed before subsiding again. Curiously it’s followed by another Andante which is a set of variations and then an Allegro of great vigour, especially for the cellos. 

The performances are wonderfully warm, committed and utterly convincing. These are young performers who, one assumes, have not come across Röntgen before. The booklet pictures them and gives some biographical details. I remember reading a sensational review of their debut in New York in 2003. This is, in my view, top quality musicianship and even if the music was not that interesting I would still be praising the music-making. The recording only serves to enhance all that they achieve. 

This then is a fascinating disc and I urge you to look into it. From there you might join me in a search for more music by this, as yet, little known but true master of the early twentieth century. 

Gary Higginson 


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