From the Netherlands with love
© Chris Green, September 2013
London ’s National Gallery, one of the finest in the world, ahs been buzzing through the summer as visitors flocked to see a new exhibition, Vermeer and Music. The exhibition has now closed, but it has left a legacy. For a start, there is an accompanying book and also a lavishly produced a double CD and booklet which features music by John Dowland (1563-1626) and the slightly older William Byrd (1543-1623). Performed by the period performance group Fretwork and Christopher Wilson (lute), Michael Chance (counter tenor), and Elizabeth Liddle (viol). Dances from the Tudor period are interleafed with secular and sacred songs by the composers. Anyone appreciating the poetry of the period would be delighted by titles of pieces such as Mrs Nichols Almand, Sir Henry Umpton’s Funerall and The King of Denmarks Galiard.
However, the beauty of the EMI-Virgin release is the care that has gone into the accompanying CD booklet which not only describes – albeit briefly- the background to these composers and their work in and around London but reminding the reader and listener that John Dowland also spent much of his life as a itinerant lutenist in France, Denmark and Germany. Who know? He may have visited the Low Countries. One thing is certain: neither could have met Johannes Vermeer. He was born in 1632, years after both composers passed away. However, the link is music and the way in which the Dutch artist and his contemporaries incorporated instruments and musical activities in his paintings, some of which are reproduced in the booklet together with a commentary. From Two Boys and a Girl Making Music by Jan Miense Molenaer to The Guitar Player by Vermeer, the chosen works reflect the importance in which music-making and concerts played in the life of the new Dutch Republic (EMI-Virgin 509998493128).
Spain had been involved in the Low Countries, and the seventeenth century was marked by the European War of the Spanish Succession which ended with the Peace of Utrecht. The year was 1713 and Handel, now firmly ensconced in London, felt obliged to add his musical voice to the celebrations with an extended piece of choral writing. In 14 movements, he sets both the Te Deum and Jubilate for chorus and soloists. His employer, Elector George of Hanover and now crowned George I of Great Britain must have been pleased with the result which was first performed in St Paul’s Cathedral. For the congregation this was a new style- grand and brilliant in writing. Handel was to follow it up with Coronation anthems, one of which remains a firm favourite of choirs – Zadok the Priest. Both works are coupled in a reissued CD in which Geraint Jones Singers and Orchestra perform. The recording in 1959 shows little signs of ageing – maybe a few of the forte passages are compressed but the Polydor release was well received on its initial release. The reissue comes from Archiv Production (453 167-2).
The Rotterdam Philharmonic orchestra did some good work under the baton of James Conlon and so, the final part of this postcard from the Netherlands via Great Britain is a reminder that one of the best releases in their collaboration was of three works by Francis Poulenc in which Francois-René Duchable and Jean-Philippe Collard play two pianos or one piano (depending on the work) in the Concerto for 2 pianos, the Piano Concerto and Aubade. I cannot tire of this music with zest for life mixed with passages of melancholy. It is almost as if the French composer suddenly remembers a sad episode in his life, shrugs it off, and sets off to enjoy himself in a street café (Erato 0630-13738-2).
Given the state of the recording industry at present, search for these latter two releases because they are worth acquiring.