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
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.
Previous review: Jonathan