Piano Sonatas by Julius Röntgen (1855-1932)
John Kersey, piano
Audio sample: Sonata no 2 2nd movt (scherzo)
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Total time: 63 mins 47 secs
Sonata no. 1 in A major, op. 2
1. Allegro (9’12”)
2. Scherzo: Presto (6’53”)
3. Adagio (8’42”)
4. Vivace quasi presto (8’00”)
Sonata no. 2 in D flat major, op. 10
1. Allegretto, sempre tranquillo (10’22”)
2. Scherzo: Allegro vivace (3’52”)
3. Andante cantabile (8’09”)
4. Finale: Allegro con fuoco (8’28”)
We are grateful to Peter Cook for supplying copies of scores for use in this recording.
Notes on the music
Julius Engelbert Röntgen was the son of the first violinist in Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra and showed musical gifts from an early age, studying under Carl Reinecke. Aged fourteen, Röntgen visited Liszt in Weimar and played for him, and returning home, he was introduced to Brahms by his friend Heinrich von Herzogenberg. Piano studies continued under the aged Franz Lachner, who had known Schubert.
From 1877, Röntgen based himself in Amsterdam, where he taught at the music school and gave concerts, including a performance of Brahms’ second concerto under the composer’s baton. He was together with Coenen and de Lange founder of the Amsterdam Conservatoire in 1883, and the following year was involved in the foundation of the Concertgebouw. However, he was passed over for selection as the Concertgebouw’s first Director, and thereafter concentrated on composing and working as a collaborative pianist. Among his duo partners was the young Pablo Casals.
The First World War brought about conflict for Röntgen, since one of his sons was taken prisoner by the Germans. In 1919 he took Dutch citizenship, before retiring in 1924. This retirement in fact prompted a burst of creativity in composition, with over one hundred works (mostly chamber music and songs) produced. The last year of Röntgen’s life saw him begin to experiment with atonality, and he wrote a bitonal symphony which has yet to be published.
Röntgen’s work has received limited attention since his death, and only parts of his compositional legacy are represented on disc today, with the solo piano music being particularly little-known. As this present issue shows, Röntgen wrote with considerable facility for the instrument and was in many respects a successor to his teacher Reinecke as well as to Brahms himself. Röntgen’s obituary in The Times, by Donald Francis Tovey, contained the following endorsement, “Röntgen’s compositions, published and unpublished, cover the whole range of music in every art form; they all show consummate mastery in every aspect of technique. Even in the most facile there is beauty and wit. Each series of works culminates in something that has the uniqueness of a living masterpiece.”
The piano sonata was an enduring preoccupation for Röntgen and the exact number of works in that genre that he wrote cannot yet be ascertained with certainty, since a significant part of his output was completed but not published. What is certain is that from his earliest years as a composer through to his last, he was writing piano sonatas, and by the time the A major sonata recorded here was published as his op. 2 he was already fluent in his mastery of large-scale piano writing.
Beethoven, a nd in particular the sonatas op 28 and op 101, is the main influence on the opening movement of the A major sonata, and just in the later D flat example op 10, Röntgen explores material that begins in pastoral and easy-going vein only to reveal more turbulent undercurrents as the material is developed. Rather than the expected calm flow introduced by the opening, Röntgen’s unexpectedly disconnected phrases ask significant questions that will only be fully answered later in the work.
Both sonatas place the scherzo movement second, reflecting the contrast between first and slow movements of considerable import. In the A major, the material is playful, while the D flat major is more extrovert and even Busonian. The slow movement of the A major exploits the contrast between the chorale-like opening and a more agitated dotted figure that recurs periodically as an episode. The D flat major begins with a determined processional which is contrasted with more lyrical polyphonic material leading to a dramatic chordal peroration.
The finale of the A major has a gigue-like quality rather in keeping with the pastoral mood of the opening. Pianistic leaping figures are notable and in places the writing assumes orchestral dimensions. The finale of the D flat sonata, by contrast, has something of a Grieg-like quality in its rustic, uncompromising refrain, though the development into elaborate polyphony suggests no-one so much as Brahms, though the demands upon the performer (confronted with streams of double-notes and wide-ranging textures that call for considerable stamina) are distinctly progressive compared with the earlier composer.