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CLASSICAL  June 2007

CLASSICAL June 2007

Subject:

Julius Rontgen--One of the Great Unknowns

From:

James Tobin <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 12 Jun 2007 21:56:01 -0500

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text/plain

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JULIUS RONTGEN [ROENTGEN] 1855-1932: Symphony No.  3 in C minor,
1910 (32:46); Suite Aus Jotunheim, 1892 (25:10).  Staatsphilharmonie
Rheinland-Pfalz, cond.  David Porcelijn.  cpo 777 119-2

JULIUS RONTGEN: Serenade, op.  14, 1876, seven for winds (27:58)
Viotta Ensemble; Thema mit Variationem, op.  17, 1878, for piano four
hands (10:32), Wynecke Jordans & Leo van Doeselaar; Motetten (3) (17:14)
Netherlands Chamber Choir; Symphony in C# Minor, 1930 (18:28), Netherlands
Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond.  Jac van Steen, Roberta Alexander,
Soprano.  NM Special 92096.

Occasionally I see someone claim that there surely aren't any unknown
geniuses, because quality will out; or that the basic established canon
of great composers is sufficient; and once I noted that someone on an
electronic discussion group, perhaps this one, announced that his
collection of recordings was "complete." My own experience, in what has
happily not been a brief existence, is that there seems to be an unlimited
supply of exciting music out there, such that I keep being surprised and
delighted by new discoveries.  Thanks to mimi Ezust--here--and also Scott
Morrison, who reviewed the first disc listed above, I have recently
discovered some of the music of Julius Rontgen (By the way, if you Google
"Rontgen" you are going to get over a million hits, because the composer
shares a surname with a famous physicist who gave his name to a unit of
energy.  (There is an umlaut on the "o" of each name but searching without
adding an "e" is usually more successful then with one; I cannot type
the one and choose to omit the other.)

Born in Leipzig, and a student of Reinecke, this composer was a friend
of both Brahms and Grieg, and the cpo recording shows why.  I would not
insult either of these works by calling them derivative, but there are
correspondences between these works and the styles of the other composers
mentioned.  As a matter of fact, Brahms found it necessary to apologize
for having inadvertently plagiarized the main theme of own second
symphony's first movement from the main theme of the first movement of
Rontgen's wind serenade; Rontgen dedicated the Suite Aus Jotunheim to
Grieg.  Rontgen's father and maternal grandfather both played in the
Gewandthaus Orchestra and Julius was a Wunderkind who composed from the
age of nine.  He was one of the first to perform in the Concertgebouw
and in 1884 helped found the Amsterdam Conservatoire, the director of
which he later became.

As his dates indicate Rontgen's compositions spanned five and a half
decades.  Their total number was over eight hundred!  They included over
twenty symphonies and many concertos, including more then one for violin
and for cello, as well as for piano.  A funny mis- translation from the
Dutch in the notes to the NM recording says that "Rontgen composed most
of his symphonies by the end of his life," but the use of a Dutch
dictionary assures me that this should have been rendered something like
"the bulk of his symphonic output occurred in the last years of his
life." One of those late symphonies was identified as a bitonal symphony.
I have not heard it yet; the ones I have heard are tonal with perhaps
some chromatic elements, and Rontgen can certainly be identified as a
Romantic or post-romantic composer, with a strongly lyrical inclination.
He never sounds tired or hackneyed.  Based on what I have heard to date,
Rontgen's voice is fresh and his invention seems unfailing.  His melodic,
rhythmic and contrapuntal writing is satisfying.  His musical textures
and (multiple) musical lines are always clear.  He wrote especially well
for the woodwinds and horns.

My favorite of the works mentioned here is the late C#minor symphony,
in one movement.  It is exceptionally quiet, except for a loud passage
a few minutes in, and another passage of rising tension later.  The last
third of the work, following a brief pause, features a high, wordless
and soft but clear soprano, interspersed with comments from the orchestra.
The work is nothing short of exquisite.  The earlier symphony is more
traditional, in four movements.  The suite is very pleasurable, as are
the other works.  The recording quality is excellent on both releases.

Jim Tobin

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