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Julius RÖNTGEN (1855-1932)
The Late String Trios
String Trio No. 13 in A (1925) [19:49]
String Trio No. 14 in C minor (1928) [21:24]
String Trio No. 15 in C-sharp minor (1929) [15:00]
String Trio No. 16 in C-sharp minor (1930) [16:54]
Offenburg String Trio
rec. Schüttbau, Rügheim, Germany, November 2013
NAXOS 8.573384 [73:07]

Listening to this program of Julius Röntgen's last four string trios, I was struck by the variety of sonorities the composer was able to conjure from just three players. To be sure, there are full-bodied, close-position sonorities of the sort we hear in Beethoven's familiar masterpieces in this genre. In other passages, by contrast, the violin will take a high phrase, with the the lower instruments cooperating to support it; elsewhere, the textures are spare, with the three instruments widely spaced.

The spare textures are in keeping with the scores' basically modernist aesthetic, with unstable harmonies and voicings frequently producing an agitated or emotionally disturbed effect. An irregular scansion at the start of Trio 15's Finale automobilistico -- I'm not making that up -- momentarily leaves the listener off-balance, until it settles into a bouncy 6/8. The scherzo of Trio 16 begins with darting, disconnected fragments, shortly coalescing into a full-length violin phrase. There are lively passages, to be sure, and conventionally Romantic ones, with some lovely old-fashioned touches: the folk-like accents in the scherzo of the C minor, the Slavic melancholy of the second theme in Trio 15. The harmonic idiom, overall, is conservative -- in the A major Trio, Mendelssohn and Brahms never seem far away -- though marked by sidling chromatic sequences and, in the Andantino con tenerezza of the C minor Trio, some unexpected harmonic pivots.

The relative brevity of the individual movements -- another modernist reaction, perhaps, to late-Romantic sprawl -- leads to some telescoping of form. The opening movements aren't always full-scale sonata structures; the scherzos, cheerful or dancey rather than hectic, aren't necessarily tripartite. Since the music falls easily on the ear and seems to proceed logically, this isn't as much of a problem as it might have been for the listener struggling to orient him- or herself. A fugal passage rounds off the C minor's Finale compellingly; other such passages launch the two C-sharp minor Trios.

According to my notes, the A major Trio "strikes a good balance between Classical rhythmic rigor and searching Romantic harmonies" -- all true, but this for a piece composed in 1925! Still, the cello's fussing ostinato in the second movement plays against its Andantino tranquillo designation. Much of the C minor Trio, the most substantial score here, wavers between major and minor tonalities. In Trio 15, the opening fugato has Beethovenian contours, with a feint towards Expressionism; the yearning Andante strains at the boundaries of Romantic harmony, but maintains its dignity. The simple, aching Lento ma non troppo of Trio 16 ends in solemn desolation, after which the turbulent finale somehow manages to detour into the major for an affirmative finish!

The players of the Offenburg String Trio -- despite the cutesy italicized ff in its name -- don't play everything fortissimo. They bring these scores a variety of dynamics, and of modes of attack, that emphasize Röntgen’s textural contrasts; yet their incisive attacks in Trios 14 and 16 are unfailingly attractive. In the first movement of the A major, the viola and cello move in perfectly blended thirds under the violin’s high trill; the soft playing in the C minor’s Andante con tenerezza has a beautiful, fragile delicacy. Ensemble and intonation are most impeccable. A brief patch of slithery execution in the Poco allegretto of Trio 16, a momentary loss of momentum in that Finale automobilistico -- was the car short of gas? -- stick out a bit amid the prevailing excellence.

The sound, too, is excellent.

Stephen Francis Vasta



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