Were I to choose a dozen favorite chamber music CDs, one would
be the RCA Red Seal issue of Julius Röntgen’s Piano Quintet; Trio
for Clarinet, Viola and Piano; Sonata for Viola and Piano; and Sextet
for strings (88697-15837). The CD is [HA11] curiously titled Right
Through the Bone, because Röntgen’s brother, Wilhelm, discovered Xrays.
Composer Edvard Grieg, however, said Julius’ music went ‘‘right
through bone’’, making it more powerful than his brother’s X-rays. Be
that as it may, this music is drop-dead beautiful and performed with the
highest level of artistry by members of the ARC Ensemble from the
Royal Conservatory of Music in Canada. Music flowed out of Röntgen
(1855–1932), who composed more than 650 works. This exquisitely
lovely, late-romantic music, called ‘‘unmodern’’ by its creator, reminds
me mostly of Dvorak, because Röntgen’s gift for melody is comparable.
His music also possesses a haunting quality, a special eeriness that makes it unforgettable. This is a major discovery.
There are also a number of CPO releases of Röntgen’s music. Initially,
Röntgen became familiar to me through his chamber music.
When I listened to it, I thought that I had encountered an undiscovered
genius. It’s that good. You must also hear his fabulous piano trios,
as well. (See the Ars Produktion label.) I, therefore, looked forward
with great anticipation when the CPO label began releasing gobs of his orchestral music, including a selection of his many symphonies.
Alas, the level of accomplishment was not the same, which is not to
say that it is not very good music. It is, but I would not put it in the
absolute first rank, where his chamber music belongs. Howdo I tell the
difference? Easy. When I discovered the chamber music, I went around
grabbing people by the lapels to tell them to listen to it. I don’t do that
with his orchestral works. This may be a highly subjective standard, but it’s how I know—my own personal barometer of quality.
Another intriguing CPO release (777 119) brings us Röntgen’s Symphony no. 3. This 1910 work is conservative for its time, which does
not matter a whit now. It has a Beethoven-like spine, and its orchestral
language comes partly from Brahms. The symphony has wonderful
drive and energy. There is an overt homage to Beethoven in the first
movement. Röntgen has his own character, however, and can weave
some delicate, almost chamber-like lyrical tracery amidst the larger orchestral
tumult. I like this work the more I listen to it. Fine performances
of the symphony and the accompanying piece, Aus Jotunheim,
from the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic, 2189 under David Porcelijn.
CPO has added to the Röntgen orchestral survey with three other
releases: one, containing his Piano Concertos nos. 2 and 4 (CPO 777
398); another with his with two of his Violin Concertos and a Ballad
for Violin and Orchestra (CPO 777 437); and the third, containing two
wind Serenades and a Trio for flute, oboe and bassoon (CPO 777 127).
All of this music is pretty solidly anchored in the late 19th century,
even though more than half of these works were written in the early 20th. Röntgen’s language did not change much over the course of his
lengthy career. In any case, these are all very attractive works, which
would make for great leisure listening. As I knew from his chamber
music, Röntgen had a pronounced melodic gift. Even Rachmaninoff
might have envied the main theme of Piano Concerto no. 2. The wind
Serenades could not be more gently genial. They make for a lovely entertainment.
Anyone enamored of late 19th-century violin concertos will also be delighted with the graceful sonority of these.