The string trio, comprising violin, viola, and cello, was a combination favoured by Classical composers and their immediate successors. Mozart and Beethoven produced notable essays in the form, and Schubert contributed a few. It was largely neglected by the later Romantics. Presumably those composers, whose rich harmonies frequently strained at the expressive capacity of quartets and quintets, felt too constrained when limited to just three instruments. So these early-twentieth-century examples by the Dutch composer Julius Röntgen automatically merit some attention.
It's not clear why Röntgen — well-known as a pianist and teacher, as well as a composer — chose to explore the string-trio format relatively late in his career, when he was already sixty. He would compose sixteen such scores; all of them except Op. 76 remain unpublished, as does much of the rest of his output. The present issue represents the first installment of a planned cycle of the Trios.
The four Trios presented here are brief, averaging a quarter-hour in duration; thus, the individual movements are necessarily concise. They are "Classical" in their clean-lined effect and don't all conform strictly to textbook formats. However: in the E minor's scherzo, for example, a "telescoped" rather than literal recapitulation provides satisfaction without undue repetition. The textures generated by just three instruments can be surprisingly stark. Röntgen balances such passages with sweetly lyrical ones. The recurring combination of duetting upper strings over shapely cello pizzicatos is particularly fetching.
The first two trios, despite a few exploratory harmonic shifts, adhere to a Classical aesthetic. The playful third movement of Op. 76, subtitled Alt-Holländisch, like several others here, emulates the style of an old Dutch dance. The Passepied finale of the same trio, a homage to Bach, consists of a caressing theme followed by six rather severe variations, each in a style inspired by the older composer.
The A minor trio is intended as a tribute to Dvořák, beginning with the theme of that composer's violin concerto. The waltz motion of its central Andantino, however, instead suggests a quirky take on Brahms. The finale's driving "hunting" motif recalls Classical models.
With the Third and Fourth Trios, Röntgen moves firmly into an advanced late-Romantic idiom. They are "advanced" in their sophisticated, mercurial harmonic pivots (à la Richard Strauss) rather than in the use of abrasive dissonances - also à la Richard Strauss, but not in the same works. The opening of the E minor Trio is piquant and unstable, although the composer is careful to set it off against a simple, lyrical second theme. The minor-major cross relations of the same Trio's Allegro vivace e furioso keep the listener off-balance. Even the folk- and dance-based movements incorporate modernistic touches. In the second, Piacevole, movement of the Fourth Trio — an appealing suite of six short waltzes, culminating in a fugue — the higher note of the cello's drone repeatedly climbs a half-step, grinding against the upper voices.
The young women of the Lendvai Trio prove ardent advocates for the composer. Their tone is vibrant, their rhythmic address is alert and their balances are impeccable. Best of all, they sound like they're just having the best time with this music. The sound is excellent.
This is repertoire worth exploring, especially in these performances. I'm looking forward to the rest of the cycle.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
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