Julius RÖNTGEN (1855-1932)
Piano Music, Vol. 1
Suite in Four Movements, Op. 7 (1873) [17:44]
Variations and Finale on a Hungarian Czardas, Op. 25 (1885) [17:04]
Three Romances, Op. 34 (1904) [11:45]
Buiten, Op. 65 (1919) [24:16]
Mark Anderson (piano)
rec. 8-9 May 2014, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK

Julius Röntgen is one of those composers who never wrote a masterpiece, but who made a lot of very enjoyable music across many genres. His string trios, currently being recorded as a cycle on Champs Hill Records (Volume 1Volume 2), have revealed some delights. His symphonies, many of which are on CPO, can be very entertaining. I’m especially fond of the brief Symphony No. 10, in which a grandiose allegro, complete with ultra-Brahmsian second theme, gets hijacked by a loopy Johann Strauss waltz parody. Dr. Jurjen Vis, in his liner notes for this new CD, is correct to write that “One could look in vain for anything truly original or shocking in Röntgen’s output, but this was not his motivation. His compositions are without exception very well written and are constructed with great skill. Here is healthy, joyful music…”

Indeed. There is a lot to enjoy on this first disc of Röntgen’s piano music. The four works chosen span his entire life, from the Suite Op. 7, written as a teenager, to 1919’s Buiten, Op. 65, which could translate, depending on your preference, as “Outside” (which Nimbus chose) or “Out of Doors” (to match Bartók).

The Suite finds the young Röntgen attempting to show his range, from a charming romantic scherzo (Entrata) to the rather pompous grandeur of his strict baroque passacaglia. The Hungarian Czardas variations temporarily eschew Hungarian folk flair for a Germanic series of quality variations. One of the early sections calls to mind Haydn’s “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” (a.k.a. “Deutschland uber Alles”), while Variation 7 sounds a bit like the aquarium from Carnival of the Animals. There are other pleasant echoes of Brahms intermezzi and Chopin preludes. Then, in the six-minute non-variation finale, we finally get a big dollop of czardas flavour.

The two decades separating those two works with the Three Romances make a huge difference. In these three pieces, from 1904, Röntgen sounds like late Brahms, late Liszt and the Chopin scherzos. The last “romance” is weirdly violent and dissonant for a piece with that title.

Then comes the album’s “big” work, Buiten (Outdoors), which is “big” in the same sense as a Schumann suite: it’s a set of ten miniatures which add up to something much more interesting. The second piece, “The farmer’s wife,” is a dance so peppy and cleverly drawn that it could easily represent Schumann’s Florestan. No. 5, “Ratbout’s Castle,” is a passacaglia version of Mussorgsky’s old castle or maybe a dark, brooding twin to Chopin’s Berceuse. It all ends with a “Klompenfuga” (fugue in clogs), which is about as Dutch as you can possibly get. By the way, yes, the piece does sound like Schumann at times, despite being written in 1919. Fine by me.

Mark Anderson’s pianism is very impressive through this album, and he does a great job “selling” Röntgen to the listener. Being an ambassador for unknown piano music (review review) can be an unrewarding task, because in territory like this, it’s harder to judge the quality of artistry on display but Anderson does such a fine job that both he and Röntgen come out of this album looking like major talents. The sound quality is a little distant, but not a problem, and Dr. Vis’s booklet notes have not been edited for proper English spelling and usage, a measure which does him a disservice.

These two flaws are not nearly enough to preclude a strong welcome. Julius Röntgen is always entertaining and enjoyable. Not every new album you hear can change your life and as far as non-life-changing music goes this is pretty great.

Brian Reinhart

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