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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Julius RÖNTGEN (1855-1932)
Cello Concerto No.3 (1928) [14:51]
Cello Concerto No.2 (1909) [18:38]
Cello Concerto No.1 (1893) [28:42]
Gregor Horsch (cello),
Netherlands Symphony Orchestra/David Porcelijn
rec. Enschede Musikzentrum, The Netherlands, June 2006
CPO 777 234-2 [62:36]

In recent years CPO have almost single-handedly resurrected the reputation of the German-born Dutch-naturalised composer Julius Röntgen. Not that he had a bad reputation previously but simple neglect meant that even the most curious of music-lovers had little material on which to form an opinion. Now with multiple orchestral, chamber, choral and concerted discs he has emerged as a late-Romantic composer of great skill, easy appeal and considerable worth.
This CPO disc of the three Röntgen cello concertos supports that view, although the march has rather been stolen by an identically coupled disc on the Etcetera label from cellist Arturo Murazabal. Given CPO’s commitment to the Röntgen cause it is odd to see that this has been in the company’s archives for seven years before release. I have not heard the Etcetera recording so cannot make any comparisons in terms of performance but this current disc is a winner.
The cellist is Gregor Horsch - on of the Concertgebouw’s principals and the conductor is the CPO stalwart of this cycle - David Porcelijn. CPO’s engineering is very good - detailed and rich which allows the quirky charm of Röntgen’s orchestration to register well. Horsch is placed slightly forward in the sound-picture but not disturbingly so. On Murazabal’s disc I see the concertos are placed in chronological order - Horsch has the order reversed. Normally I would instinctively prefer the former but actually here they diminish in scale and aspiration - the 3rd is a concertino-like little gem though - so as a listening experience in a single sitting concluding with the ‘biggest’ work feels appropriate.
Praise-be too that the CPO liner writer has finally given up ideas of philosophical grandeur and now writes a good plain informative note that illuminates both the composer and his work. From this it is clear that the cello was dear to Röntgen’s heart - aside from these three concertos he wrote 11 sonatas for the instrument. His father was assistant concert-master of the Leipzig Gewandhaus and a close friend of that orchestra’s principal cellist Emil Hegar. One of Röntgen’s closest friends was Julius Klengel, a Hegar pupil who joined the orchestra at a jaw-dropping 15 years old and became in turn the section principal at 21. As an aside - the Klengel concerti also on CPO are charmers if even more light-weight than those under consideration here.
Taking them chronologically; Number 1 dates from 1893 - some fifteen years after Röntgen had left Germany and settled in Amsterdam. Quite rightly the liner highlights that this is the work - of the three - that most closely doffs its musical cap towards the models of Schumann and Dvořák …not so much formally but certainly in the manner which Röntgen emphasises the sweeping melodic lyricism. Each concerto plays continuously although the various ‘movements’ are easily distinguishable. The work opens with a grandly rhetorical recitative cum cadenza-like passage before leading into the first subject material played by the orchestra. It would be wrong to pretend this is the most wholly original music one has ever heard but conversely part of the Röntgen charm is to veer away from the generic or plagiaristic at crucial moments writing something both individual and often rather beautiful. Just listen to the recapitulation of the singing second subject in the orchestral strings over arpeggiating figurations from the soloist [track 9 14:00] - it’s absolutely lovely, perhaps more Herbert than Dvořák but a moment that sticks in the memory.
The faintly operetta-ish feel is maintained in the lilting Un poco andante. Not for the only time listening to this disc I found myself thinking of Max Bruch’s works for solo cello - especially the gorgeous Adagio on Celtic themes. Indeed, I would go further - I would suggest that if Bruch had not written the famous G minor Violin Concerto his status would be very similar to Röntgen’s; namely that of a resolutely Romantic composer of considerable melodic gifts who refused to embrace any modernisms while composing well into the twentieth century. The faint air of light music persists through into the good-naturedly bouncing main theme of the finale. Both here and in the central andante Röntgen seems content to write attractively without worrying about too rigorous developmental passages. Once you accept that this is intended to be appealing and not necessarily profound the dividends are considerable.
Porcelijn and his Netherlands Symphony Orchestra are very adept at steering a path between pleasingly vigorous performances without trying to make the music ‘bigger’ than it is. The same is true of Gregor Horsch. He is technically wholly on top of the demands of these scores but again I like the fact that he allows the music to sing and does not try to make heavy-weight musical points where none exist.
In many ways the Second Concerto finds the best balance between form, style and content. Again, best to ignore the date of composition - 1909, the year of the Webern Passacaglia, Ives’ Unanswered Question or Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde - this is no modernist revolution. Another master-cellist was the inspiration - Pablo Casals and it is a quirky fusion of various musical influences. As the CPO liner puts it rather neatly; “things could not be more international: a German composer in Amsterdam wrote a concerto on Norwegian and Irish themes for a Spanish cellist”. Where the first concerto opens with an accompanied recitative the second has an introductory cadenza with a whiff of Irish snap about it. The dramatic opening tutti shows off the richly pleasing recording to great effect with the Netherlands brass given a rare opportunity to play at their heroic best. The main difference with this concerto - the movements again run together in one continuous sequence - is a four-part form emphasising a suite-like rather than concerto feel. CPO separate out five tracks in fact but the second ‘movement’ is no more than a one minute transition from the opening allegro to the main second section allegretto scherzando. This movement has a striking rhythmic resemblance to the final movement of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnol - perhaps a nod towards the nationality of its first performer. Indeed, the orchestration has a similar lightness and wit. An enduring impression of all three of these works is Röntgen’s skill and economy in his use of the orchestra. This movement flecks the melody with lovely glimmers of glockenspiel and triangle before the lush string-led second subject. In turn this transitions into the very beautiful Andante espressivo which makes use of the Irish melody Shule Aroon. Apparently this melody had a particular fascination for Röntgen as he had used it previously in a cello and piano Fantasy and later wrote a cello and orchestra work utilising it. The Finale continues the Celtic link and is enjoyable but probably the weakest section; it feels rather as though the composer is trying to round the work off in an energetic but slightly forced manner.
Röntgen waited another 19 years until he returned to the cello concerto format. Here the three movements last less than a quarter hour in total - which makes the work all but impossible to programme in the concert hall. The orchestration has been further refined. Röntgen follows his earlier model in the use of linked movements as well as having the soloist dominate the opening of the work. Here it is more in the manner of a traditional accompanied statement of material rather than a cadenza or recitative. The major contribution of a celesta in the opening movement is a surprising delight and very effective. This work is as resolutely conservative as ever - 1928 was the year of Prokofiev’s Third Symphony and Berg’s Lulu to name but two - but this is a composer who loves lyrical and tonally melodic music above all else and the cello is his perfect vehicle. At this point worth it is reiterating the skill of Gregor Horsch at sustaining these lyrical lines. He has exactly the right kind of intensity in playing which is never technically compromised. The closing movement is Röntgen’s most successful solution to the ‘festive finale’ question. Over - another - singing solo cello line a solo viola has a bustling arpeggiating figure while the woodwind have a dotted rhythm fanfare-like motif. Echoes of Dvořák are still apparent as the orchestra rework these varying elements. A full orchestra treatment of the fanfare leads to a traditionally placed cadenza which is effective if not exactly expanding one’s knowledge of cello technique; even so, Horsch impresses again. A harmonic side-slip by the brass brings the concerto to a rather surprisingly abrupt end.
Certainly this is a disc to add to the collection of those already converted to the Röntgen cause. It’s possibly not the one to start a survey with … not because it is anything but excellent in terms of execution or interest but simply that I would consider other Röntgen works to be of greater substance and enduring merit.
Nick Barnard

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf