Pure pleasure flows through my veins when I listen to the opening bars of Julius Röntgen’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in F major. An energetic introduction sets the mood for the first movement: optimistic, decisive, rousing, alternatively gentle, elegant, reflected – the Allegro carries me away each time I listen to it. A midsummer night’s dream! Röntgen wrote this piano concerto in 1906, it was his last. By then he was an established figure of the Dutch music scene and a well known composer in Europe. He had supported the foundation of the Amsterdam Conservatory and the Concertgebouw. He had written hundreds of sonatas for piano and cello, concertos, symphonies, songs, solo piano pieces and compositions for chamber music. He was 51 years old and still eager to take up a challenge.
Piano Concerto No. 4 is a such a challenge. In February 1907 Röntgen confided to his friend, the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, that the score was “infamously difficult” – a reference to the agitated passages for the soloist in the last movement. The German pianist Matthias Kirschnereit, who did an excellent recording of piano songs written by Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, has taken up the challenge and given this piece the devotion, the spirit and the sensitivity it merits. It is simply wonderful! Here, take the second movement: Larghetto espressivo. A faint echo of Johannes Brahms’ dark orchestral gloom balanced by a crystal clear piano voice. A delight! And there, the finale, it takes up thematic material from the first movement and catapults me instantly into ultimate bliss!
Once Röntgen had settled down in the Netherlands, he found to his personal way of composing, his characteristic language, firmly rooted in the Leipzig tradition. He was less an innovator than a perfectioner of existing forms. His extensive research on Dutch popular music influenced his later music, further inspiration came from Scandinavian folk tunes. Röntgen’s frequent visits to Denmark and his lively exchange with Grieg testify of his interest in Scandinavia’s musical heritage and his readiness to experiment while still remaining within the bounds of German Romanticism.
His friendship with Grieg was paramount for his work, on a personal level and on the level of musical language. Upon Grieg death on September 4, 1907, Röntgen wrote to Carl Flesch, violin teacher at the Amsterdam Conservatory: “I lose very much with Grieg […] The days I spent with him and the many letters we exchanged over the past 25 years were among the greatest joys of my life. I owe him a lot in terms of music, the personal contact and the exchange of opinions. I passively worshipped Brahms and with [the violinist Joseph] Joachim I felt restricted through his conservative attitude. With Grieg it was very different, and neither did I feel timidity nor did I have the impression that music [evolution] stopped with Brahms.”
Piano Concerto No. 4 has been recorded by the NDR Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under David Porcelijn and Matthias Kirschnereit (piano).
© Charles Thibo