Dutch Cello Sonatas – CD 2


Julius Röntgen (1855-1932): Sonata opus 41 (1901), Sonata opus 56 (1907) and Cinq Morceaux (1918, rev. 1923)
Daniel van Goens (1858-1904): three short pieces (1895-1900)

2009, MDG audiomax 903 1574-6

Chosen as best chamber music CD of 2009 by the listeners of  R4 programme Viertakt
Editor’s choice in Opus Klassiek
Opus d’Or in Opus haute définition


Opus Haute Définition, no.67 – Mars 2010

Pour ce second volet consacré aux Sonates pour violoncelle hollandaises, Doris Hochscheid (violoncelle) et Frans van Ruth (piano) nous entraînent sur les traces de deux compositeurs méconnues dans nos contrées. Julius Röntgen (1855-1932) et Daniel van Goens (1858-1904). Du premier nous pouvons entendre la Sonate opus 56 en si mineur datant de 1907, Cinq Morceaux de 1917/18, révisés en 1922/23, et la Sonate opus 41 en la mineur datant de 1901. Du second, c’est un scherzo op.12 de 1895, Invocation op.36 de 1900 et enfin Menuet op.39 datant de 1900 également. Comme pour le précédent volume (voir Opus HD Magazine no.51) le petit miracle se poursuit, et le duo de musiciens nous invite au partage d’une musique à découvrir et à savourer sans modération. Voici donc une initiative éditoriale à saluer, qui nous éloigne avec bonheur des sentiers battus par le manque d’imagination de certains labels.

Jean-Jacques Millo

Fanfare, volume 33, no.4 – March/April 2010
(Fanfare has published a combined review of CDs 1 & 2)

Willem Pijper (1894-1947) was Holland’s most influential composer between the First and Second World Wars. Wildly avant-garde for his era – in a most conservative musical society – he and his many pupils were responsible for dragging Dutch music into the 20th century (Vermeulen’s equally radical music had less influence at the time). The first of Pijper’s two Cello and Piano Sonatas was written in 1919, when the young composer was beginning to free himself of turn-of-the-century influences from Paris and Vienna. Its three movements give the impression of a young firebrand sending out sparks in every direction. Hints of Mahler, Rachmaninoff, and even Falla burst trough the surface occasionally, but this is music striking out on its own. It is filled with difficult-to-pin-down ponytonalties, and though it now sounds like what it probably was – a grand experiment – it remains exciting and fresh. In this it is aided by a stunning performance. two earlier recordings of Pijper’s Cello Sonatas, on Donemus’s Composers’ Voice and on Erasmus Cds, are now easily dismissed; both play the notes and represent the score, but neither gets inside the music as do Hochscheid and van Ruth. They are way beyond issues of technical prowess, shaping beautiful phrases and producing gorgeous colors, convincing us that this is whar Pijper is all about. Seldom has a cello-and-piano team seemed so unified, in intent and in action; the phrase “on the same page” doesn’t do them justice – one mind with four hands is more fitting. Pijper’s Second Cello Sonata, written four years later, seems more conservative, if only because it is under tighter control. If less intriguing than the First Sonata, it is more satisfying. Praising each performance here would become monotonous; Hochscheid and van Ruth are the masters of every work on both these discs. Both teach at the Amsterdam Conservatory, and it comes as no surprise to read that they have performed together for years.
Luctor Ponse (1914-1998) was a pianist (he plays on the Dorati recording of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion) who took up composing late in life. Although he eventually adopted the 12-tone system and later wrote electronic music, the early (1943) Cello Sonata is basically Romantic, with a touch of Debussy for spice. It is nevertheless winning music of strong melodic and rhythmic interest. A nearly ten-minute Lento – containing an elaborate fugue – is thoroughly absorbing, and the Allegro finale brilliant. Need I add that the performance is exquisite?
Rudolf Escher (1912-1980) was Pijper’s pupil; his 1943 Sonata concertante is grim, agitated, even tragic music, as befits a composer living in Nazi-occupied Holland who had lost most of his possessions in the 1940 bombardment of Rotterdam. In the opening Allegro agitato, the two instruments seem to be at war, battling against each other. There is little of chamber music here, but the music has enormous dynamic and emotional power. In a nine-minute Lento, with not enough energy to be a funeral march, the nearly silent instruments ignore each other. Both come alive in the finale, but the music no longer wears its heart on a sleeve, so it is difficult to assess its emotional character, hopeful or hopeless.
Julius Röntgen (1855-1932) was a German/Dutch composer conservative even for his time. The 1907 B-Minor Sonata contains not a phrase, not a chord, that Brahms could not have written 30 years earlier. On the other hand, you might very well mistake this music for Brahms, at least in the Molto passionata e vivace finale, which leaps out at the listener in this dynamic yet subtle performance. Röntgen has the imagination and grace to end the sonata pp. The Cinq Morceaux consists of portraits of three characters from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Ariel, Miranda, and Caliban) surrounded by two dances, a Minuet triste (Lento) so sad that it suggests parody and a Gavotte élégante that reinforces that view. Clever music, in any case. The 1901 A-Minor Sonata finds Röntgen back in his Brahmsian mode, with an added touch of Slavic melancholy. The languorous lyricism of its opening Allegro non troppo affetuoso perfectly matches the character of the cello. But the following movements – a Vivace and an Adagio – prove that Röntgen was no Brahms, despite the elegant yet impassioned advocacy of Hochscheid and van Ruth. The finale, Allegro agitato, is back on track. By this time I am desperately searching for some sign that these performers are only human: is there a microsecond of questionable intonation at 1:11? I can’t be sure.
Besides being nigh-perfect executors and sensitive interpreters, this duo has dug up some worthy if dusty scores. In forty years of listening to Dutch music and browsing the stacks at Donemus in Amsterdam, I had not encountered the music of either Ponse or Daniel van Goens (1858-1904). The latter was a cellist who composed primarily for his instrument; these three lightweight pieces make suitable encores for Röntgen’s generally serious sonatas. The Scherzo displays Mendelssohnian wit and delicacy, the Invocation (Lento) a melodic grace ideal for the cello, but the Minuet is awkward and a bit corny; one wonders what the performers hear in it.
Audiomax is a recent offshoot of the reliable MDG label. The recorded sound on both discs is reverberant yet intimate, well-suited – and well-balanced – for a cello and a piano. As fine as the CDs are, the SACDs enjoy a clarity that enlivens both instruments, to which surround sound neither adds nor detracts. The Web site cellosonate (in English as well as Dutch) tells us that this series is projected to include six CDs; let’s hope the quality of music holds up. There’s no doubt that the performances will: Hochscheid and van Ruth (who writes the program notes) are as fine a cello-and-piano team as you will ever hear.

James H. North