CD Review

New discoveries in the Old World


© Chris Green, December 2012


I have to admit: I am embarrassed, especially when I encounter composers whose name I have never encountered, and whose music I have never heard. So, it is with that embarrassment that I approached two recent CD releases of music by Netherland composers. Of the pair, the older is Julius Röntgen. Was he Dutch or German? Born in 1855 in Leipzig, he had Dutch nationality and after graduation from the Leipzig Conservatoire, he became an accompanist to distinguished singers, and it appears that his conducting career commence in Amsterdam in 1886. Director of the Amsterdam Conservatory from 1918-1924, he composed three operas, and no less than twenty-seven symphonies as well as concertos, songs and much more. So, why is he not known better on the British side of the North Sea?

The answer might lie in the fact that much of his compositional output came after he retired from his post in Amsterdam and settled in Bilthoven. Listen to excerpts from the three symphonies recorded by the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Porcelijn and the second reason is apparent: the style is very much influenced by Brahms and is markedly at odds with the styles of classical orchestral music being performed around European concert halls. Composers such as Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, Jan Sibelius, Gustav Holst, William Walton and their contemporaries were to be style leaders and that is not forgetting Vaughan Williams and Maurice Ravel.

There is a dourness about the three recorded in the CPO release. Symphony No 5 with the grave reference to the grim reaper was written in 1926 and looks back to the Great War and the impact on Germany. The text chosen comes from Des KnabenWunderhorn, already the source of Mahler’s music and uses a Lutheran chorale. The composer reused a song he had set in 1919 and in the post-war years had met regularly with Emperor Wilhelm now exiled to the Netherlands. It is likely that the implications of the Treaty of Versailles were discussed, and whilst the piece is not overtly anti-war, the text refers to “Many hundreds of thousands unnumbered do fall under the sickle: red roses, white lilies, both he will wipe out; you Emperor’s crowns, you won’t be spared. Be careful, pretty little flower!”. If that was not sufficient warning of things to come, I am at a loss.

The use of a chorus and soloist adds texture to a work which is solidly scored as is the symphony which follows, and composed in 1928. Symphony No 6 is subtitled “RijckGod, wie sal ic claghen” and – like some of Sibelius’s symphonic structures, is in one movement with a chorus once again introducing the text. Again the composer sues a mediaeval text from about 1525 and published in the Antwerps Liedboek of 1544. The message is about mourning, and it could be that the loss to which there is reference involves a member of a royal family living in Amsterdam. It is known that the melody was a favourite of William II, the Emperor in exile and there is further reference to times past with Symphony No 9 based upon the oft-used notes B.A.C.H. Röntgen wrote the work in the year before his death and reflected his indebtedness to Bach following a tradition set by many previous composers in using the nomenclature provided by the surname. At just over 16 minutes, the four movement work is an exercise in concision, and none the worse for that (CPO 777 310-2).

From the same company comes another release also with David Porcelijn conducting the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra in the Third Symphony of Jan van Gilse (1881-1944). Before listening to the music, I read the CD liner notes, and I can only say that his life was a story of tragic dimensions which ended with a fatal illness and the death of his two sons- one in the Bloemendaal dunes, executed by the Germans, and the other arrested and also executed.

Father Van Gilse had been instrumental in the interwar years in ensuring the music of Durch composers was more widely known. His life had encapsulated some of the fascinating developments in publishing and his organisational skills were widely appreciated, although offered a job in Germany in the late 1930s, he declined on the basis that he would not work in a country where music was judged, not on its values but by its race. He had stood up to the occupying force where the employment of Jews in music organisations was concerned, but his Jewish friends had advised him to keep quiet. That bravely was going to reflect in the activities in the subsequent years including a refusal to conduct the Concertgebouw Orchestra in a concert of his own music.

I hope you see what I mean: this was a man of great principle and action for whom music remained a universal language. It is so sad, therefore, that his name is unknown in Britain and it is through releases like this one that we can better appreciate what we have been missing.

The symphony was premiered in Amsterdam in 1909 with the composer conducting. It won awards and yet remained unpublished. Now we have a chance to hear this life-affirming symphony lasting just over one hour with soprano solos in the second and last movement. The text for the former ends with the words

O love, source of life! O, gracious, you!
Guide my soul upward, guide me to the sun!

And the last is based on verses from the Song of Songs

Truly! Love can never be bought.
It cannot be bought for king’s crowns
And not for worlds!

I can only assume that the musicians realised the spirituality implicit in this work, for they respond in impressive fashion to a work that represents another era (CPO 777 518-2).