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Julius RÖNTGEN (1855-1932)
Piano Music - Volume 4
Impromptu (1910) [4:18]
Ballade No. 1 in D minor, Op. 6 (1873) [7:07]
Ballade No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 (1883) [7:56]
Ballade No. 3 in E minor “Jotunheim” (1912 pub. 2004) [7:11]
Sonata in C Sharp minor (1928) [8:55]
Sérénade mélancholique (pub. 1910) [4:35]
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.P.E. Hartmann, Op. 38 (1895) [17:41]
Mark Anderson (piano)
rec. 2018, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
NIMBUS NI5975 [57:38]

I must confess that I’ve been following this series since it began and I’ve been very impressed with all of the discs so far. Röntgen has enjoyed something of a resurgence in popularity with record companies over the last few years; to name two: CPO are working their way through the symphonies and Toccata have started a chamber music series as well. I, for one, am happy about this as I have always found his music interesting and worthwhile to get to know.

Volume 4 begins with a very short and virtuosic Impromptu. It’s difficult to categorise this but some of it seems to inhabit the same sort of sound world as Brahms’s late piano pieces and to my ears, most especially the Rhapsody from Op.119. There is also some influence of Liszt in the more difficult passages. The piece starts innocently enough before building quickly to a virtuosic conclusion. There are some strange off key chords throughout the work which add harmonic interest and there is also plenty for the pianist to do. It’s a world away from Chopin’s works of the same name. I rather like the pleading passages heard around 2’10’’ before a return of the modified opening theme. Although this theme is happy there is an underlying menace in the music; even the ending, which is quiet and reflective, has dark rumblings in the bass.

Next follow the Ballades of which there are three, separated by almost forty years in the composer’s life. His style altered a little in this time period but the 3rd of these works is still late romantic with hints of Liszt and Brahms. The first Ballade is really rather charming and contains some attractive music and some considerable difficulties for the pianist. There are some strange harmonies here too, some of them quite unexpected for the time the piece was written (1873). Generally, the work flows along smoothly with a central choppier variation from around three minutes in. These two main themes are developed nicely as the work progresses and alternated with one another to give the piece a sort of ABA structure and the ending, like the Impromptu, is slightly mysterious in character. The second Ballade, from 10 years later, opens much more violently and is in a modified sonata form. This is a real work out for the pianist with lots of heavy left hand passages and plenty of octaves sprinkled liberally throughout. By this stage, Röntgen’s style had evolved slightly and the writing is much more assured. This is young mans’ music, full of power and passion. The central section is still agitated but much quieter than the opening and is beautifully played and phrased here – there are some lovely touches in the right hand with filigree ornamentation accompanying the tune in the left hand. This relative calm doesn’t last long as the pounding octaves and questing theme return and eventually lead to a more settled section with some interesting off key harmonies. These sink into the bass registers of the piano before the main theme returns with a bang. It is an exciting 7 or so minutes with lots of interest throughout. Marvellous. The third of the Ballades dates from much later in the composer’s life but wasn’t published until 2004. This starts mysteriously with a theme in the bass which is shunted up the keyboard and modified. Here I am able to detect similarities with the piano works of Dohnányi who was heavily influenced by Brahms as well. After the turbulent opening, the second theme is more hymn like and rather touching but it is interrupted by triplet figures as the opening music re-establishes itself rather forcibly. The piece after this point generally grows in stature and power leading to a very loud, fast and exciting conclusion. There is an awful lot of super music packed into these three 7 to 8 minute pieces and they are certainly well worth hearing. There are also some very memorable themes that will stick in your mind long after the disc has stopped playing.

The following piece is another later work and a Sonata in one movement, never published during the composer’s lifetime. The opening notes are quite strange. They seem to be in no key at all but the piece develops out of these into some really sorrowful music played excellently. After this dark and sombre opening, about three minutes in, a more wistful tune emerges which pinwheels around the keyboard with lots of wonderful right hand figurations. There is an underlying sense of unease though and it ends with an abrupt series of chords which lead to an impassioned section that forms the last “movement” of the sonata. There is some strange writing here before the earlier themes are intertwined and developed and the work ends somewhat surprisingly very quiet, low down in the registers of the piano. This is an interesting piece, full of contrast and packing a lot into its short length. I think this is probably my favourite piece on the disc and it is marvellously played by Mr. Anderson.

The penultimate work on the disc is entitled Sérénade mélancholique and is the most harmonically adventurous on the whole disc. The whole piece seems not to be in any key at all and the strange rocking rhythm in the left hand combined with the dotted rhythm in the right creates an off kilter, very creepy effect. This is a highly strange and effective work, the key signature only resolving itself properly in the last thirty seconds. It is played here with exemplary skill and feeling.

The final piece on this disc is the longest piece on it, the Variations and Fugue on a theme by JPE Hartmann – another obscure 19th century composer whose music is well worth investigating. This work is comprised of 14 variations and a final fugue. The opening theme, about a minute in duration and marked Lento espressivo, is rather touching. It is varied initially into a song without words from which elements are taken to generate the second variation. The third variation is equally charming, with some “questing” writing for the main theme in the right hand. This is quickly dispelled in the following Energico, which doesn’t last very long and dovetails nicely into the following very Brahms like variation. Variations 6, 7, 8 and 9 are generally slow in nature but evolve harmonically. There is some very cleverly written and lovely music here. Variation 10 is a very expressive little piece with some gorgeous touches as the theme is modified in both form and key. The final few variations (numbers 11 – 14) are mostly louder, more powerful and serve as an impressive lead up to the final fugue. This starts quietly and meditatively but grows in stature and virtuosity to a very powerful four voice fugue, ending robustly with a single statement of the opening theme. It is a fascinating piece of writing, well worth hearing, containing much music of interest and showing how talented a composer Röntgen was. As an aside, I’d really like to hear a concert programme entirely comprised of variations and fugues – it could include this work plus (for example) Beethoven’s Eroica variations (Op.35), Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a theme of Telemann (Op.134 - or the Bach, Op.81) and Brahms’s Handel Variations (Op.24). This would be a good way of making this fascinating composer’s name better known.

The sound quality is superb throughout and the cover notes are interesting, providing further detail about this very unjustly neglected composer. It’s great that Nimbus have brought this rare and interesting repertoire into the public domain so well and given the pianist Mark Anderson the chance to record it. I hope this series will continue with some of Röntgen’s other piano works – there are many to choose from as he was an extremely prolific composer.

Jonathan Welsh

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe

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