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Röntgen: Cello Concertos No 1-3 / Muruzabal, Et Al

Release Date: 10/30/2007 
Label:  Etcetera Records   Catalog #: 1329   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Julius Röntgen
Performer:  Arturo Muruzabal
Conductor:  Paul WatkinsHenrik Schaefer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Netherlands Radio Philharmonic OrchestraNetherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

RÖNTGEN Cello Concertos: No. 1 in e; 1 No. 2 in g; 1 No. 3 in f? 2 Arturo Muruzabal (vc); Paul Watkins, cond; 1 Henrik Schaefer, cond; 2 Netherlands RCP; 1 Netherlands RSO 2 ET’CETERA 1329 Read more (64:07)

This very disc was selected by Martin Anderson for his 2007 Want List, though a search of the Fanfare Archive does not turn up a full, formal review. So, herewith is rectification of that omission.

Considering the illustrious circles in which Julius Röntgen (1855–1932) traveled, it’s amazing that he was so quickly forgotten even before his death. Born in Leipzig, Röntgen’s father was first violinist in the Gewandhaus Orchestra. His mother, Pauline Klengel, was a noted pianist. A precocious child, Julius studied with Carl Reinecke, then director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. It was in Leipzig, where Röntgen’s family was part of the Heinrich von Herzogenberg crowd, that Julius first met Brahms. Subsequently, Röntgen moved to Munich where he continued his studies under Franz Lachner who had been close to Schubert and his circle of friends. Röntgen’s earlier visit to Liszt in Weimar further enlarged his musical circle, as did his friendship with Grieg.

In 1877, the 22-year-old Röntgen moved to Amsterdam where he took up permanent residence, joined the faculty of the university there, and eventually became a Dutch citizen following WW I. In Amsterdam he frequently received Brahms as a visitor, premiering Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto in 1887 in a performance conducted by the composer. Finally, Röntgen was an instrumental player (no pun intended) in the founding of the great Concertgebouw Orchestra. His efforts were not repaid, however, when he applied for the position of the orchestra’s director and was turned down in favor of Hans von Bülow, who in turn, refused the offer. The post ultimately went to Willem Kes.

The last decade of Röntgen’s life saw his greatest activity as a composer; he is believed to have written somewhere between 100 and 200 compositions, mainly chamber works and songs, though his catalog also includes 18 symphonies (!), seven piano concertos, three violin concertos, and the three cello concertos heard on this disc. As I said at the outset, it’s hard to know why a man with such a distinguished career, so many connections among important figures of the time, and 18 symphonies in his portfolio could be so soon consigned to obscurity. Did the fact that he was Jewish at a time when “Jewishness” in music was being decried by Wagner and others and anti-Semitism was growing in Germany have had something to do with it? Could it have been that towards the end Röntgen began to flirt with unconventional musical idioms, composing a bitonal symphony that was never published? Or might it be that at the end of the day, Röntgen’s talent for composition was but a meager gift? These questions you will have to decide for yourself.

My first acquaintance with Röntgen’s music several years ago came about, interestingly enough, as the result of a letter from a reader that appeared in Fanfare ’s Letters column. In it, the reader wrote of a work by Röntgen—his D-Major Piano Concerto, op. 18—that he described as containing one of the most beautiful melodies he’d ever heard. Naturally, any composer who was writing concertos and chamber music around the same time as Brahms and who knew Brahms both professionally and personally was of great interest to me, so I had to rush out and buy the recording. It’s on the Dutch label Donemus (CV 64), but whether it’s still available or not I don’t know.

Anyway, thanks to that reader, (I wish I could recall his name so I could thank him) I discovered a new composer and indeed some truly gorgeous chamber music recorded on various labels. Cpo has also recently released a magnificent recording of Röntgen’s Third Symphony in C Minor.

The first thing that one notes in these three concertos is the conspicuous absence of Brahms. The two men may have been close friends, but Röntgen was not one of the many Brahms wannabes. If there is any influence at all on his 1894 First Concerto in E Minor, it would have to be Schumann. The opening chords and rising and falling cello entrance outlining the triadic tonality of the piece are strongly reminiscent of Schumann’s A-Minor Cello Concerto. Similarities don’t end there, but on the whole Röntgen’s work is emotionally stirring but not brooding and oppressively sullen as is Schumann’s. It is a work of great beauty, richly romantic in its melodic and harmonic content, and scored in a way that is especially sensitive to and understanding of the cello’s voice. There are also virtuosic passages aplenty to satisfy one’s appetite for pyrotechnics. In this, Röntgen’s concerto has no need to take a backseat to Dvo?ák’s concerto, begun in the same year.

Röntgen’s Second Cello Concerto in G Minor, in a single extended movement, was completed in 1909. Though dedicated to Pablo Casals, the piece uncharacteristically contains an Irish folk song and Celtic elements, leading the uncredited note author to wonder if the work might have been intended as an ode to Grieg who died in 1907. The last time I checked, Grieg was still Norwegian, not Celt. Since there are, however, modern day ethnic groups of Celts that occupy not only various parts of the British Isles, but also parts of Spain and Portugal, the Celtic reference may be a tie-in to the Casals dedication, though the great cellist might have preferred a Catalonian folk melody to the Irish one. I rather imagine that if Ralph Vaughan Williams had written a cello concerto, this is pretty close to what it would have sounded like.

Röntgen’s Third Cello Concerto (1928), in F? Minor, evidences a slow evolutionary change in the composer’s musical vocabulary as opposed to a dramatic break with the past or a radical rethinking of direction. In this regard, Röntgen’s First Cello Concerto stands in relation to his Third—34 years separate them—as Saint-Saëns’s 1872 First Cello Concerto stands in relation to his 1902 Second—the latter two separated by 30 years. Both composers gravitated towards a less lyrical, less mellifluous style in favor of a more declamatory, amelodic manner of expression and terseness of statement—both Beethoven and Brahms went that route too—but both remain strongly rooted in tonal harmonic procedures. Also in a single movement (as is his G-Minor Concerto), Röntgen’s F? Minor work is perhaps not as immediately embraceable, but its romantic petticoats are still showing.

What can I say about cellist Arturo Muruzabal? That no other listings of Röntgen’s cello concertos appear to be currently listed hardly seems to matter, for Muruzabal’s playing is incandescent and resplendent. This is the first I’ve heard of him, but according to his bio, he studied with Enrique Correa at the Madrid Conservatory, has soloed in Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Strauss’s Don Quixote , and Beethoven’s “Triple” Concerto, and in 1989 was appointed principal cello of the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra. Currently, he holds the same position with the Radio Kamer Philharmonie and the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

If you want to know why Martin Anderson chose this disc for his last Want List, and why I will probably choose it for my next one, buy it and find out for yourself. You will not be disappointed.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Cello no 1 in E minor by Julius Röntgen
Performer:  Arturo Muruzabal (Cello)
Conductor:  Paul Watkins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1894 
Notes: Composition written: 1893 - 1894. 
Concerto for Cello no 2 in G Minor by Julius Röntgen
Performer:  Arturo Muruzabal (Cello)
Conductor:  Paul Watkins
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1909 
Concerto for Cello no 3 in F sharp minor by Julius Röntgen
Performer:  Arturo Muruzabal (Cello)
Conductor:  Henrik Schaefer
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1928 

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