This is the eighth instalment of the fascinating
project between The Residentie Orchestra and Chandos to record
Dutch music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a project
leading up to the orchestra’s centenary in 2004. This latest issue
introduces me and, I suspect, many other collectors to the music
of Johannes Verhulst.
Since Verhulst’s name may be unfamiliar to many
a few biographical details may be in order. For these I am indebted
to the excellent liner notes by Ton Braas and Leo Samama. These
seem to me to be a model of their kind, giving an excellent overview
of Verhulst’s career and describing the music informatively and
enthusiastically without ever straying into hyperbole.
Johannes Verhulst was born in The Hague in 1816.
His talent was recognised at an early stage by one Johann Heinrich
Lübeck, the Director of the Royal Music School where, at
his prompting, the young Verhulst was enrolled. By the age of
15 he had secured a violinist’s berth in the Court orchestra.
In 1836 Lübeck secured for Verhulst his big break by showing
one of the youngster’s compositions to Mendelssohn during a visit
to Holland by that composer. This led to an invitation to Verhulst
to study with Mendelssohn in Leipzig. From 1838 the young Dutchman
spent nearly five years in Leipzig where he also came to the attention
Towards the end of 1842 he returned to The Hague
to conduct a concert of his own music which was a tremendous success.
As a result of that appearance he was appointed Director of court
music by the Dutch king, an appointment which persuaded him to
return to his native land. Thereafter Verhulst was a major figure
in Dutch musical life though gradually his conducting activities
became so important that he had little or no time for composition.
Among the works which he introduced to Holland were Israel
in Egypt, Bach’s B Minor Mass and the Brahms Violin Concerto
(with Joachim). He was also renowned for his readings of the Beethoven
symphonies as well as the compositions of Brahms, Schumann and
Gade. However, Verhulst’s approach to repertoire became increasingly
conservative. He would have no truck with the music of Berlioz,
Liszt and, above all, of Wagner and it was this conservative streak
which was his undoing. In 1886 it led directly to his dismissal,
after 26 years, as Director of the prestigious Diligentia concerts
in The Hague and, bitterly disappointed, he retired to rural obscurity.
On the evidence of the work recorded here this
conservative approach to music extended, perhaps inevitably, to
his own compositions. There are strong indications of the influence
of both Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Messrs. Braas and Samama also
point out the influences of Bach to whose music Mendelssohn may
well have introduced his Dutch pupil.
At least two movements of the Mass, the Kyrie
and Gloria, were written in 1840. I wonder if they were included
in the triumphant 1842 concert in The Hague to which I referred
earlier. They were certainly performed in a concert of Verhulst’s
music in Leipzig given the previous January. The rest of the Mass
was completed by 1843 though it had to wait until 1847 for its
very successful premiere. It was then, and remained for some time,
the largest scale sacred composition by a Dutch composer. As well
as the normal six movements of the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie,
Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei) Verhulst includes
an Offertory prayer, ‘Inclina Domine’ (‘Bow Thine ear, O Lord’).
The Kyrie, set for chorus and orchestra, is noble
and fervent and shows Beethoven’s influence at work though Verhulst
refrains from making on his singers the fearsome demands that
Beethoven makes in his masses. It makes a strong opening to the
In the rushing, festive start of the Gloria I
wondered if the choir’s tonal resources were a little over-stretched.
When the music is reprised at track 2, 14’25" they sound more
comfortable. The soloists make their first entry at the ‘Gratias
agimus’ which is ushered in by a modulation straight out of Beethoven
(track 2, 3’20"). As a whole the soloists sing well, both individually
and as a team although I did feel that the contralto, Margriet
van Reisen, who is the first to sing, was a touch too emphatic
in her opening solo (track 2, 3’35").
The Credo is a little unusual in that it begins
in a subdued tone. Belief is not proclaimed confidently but rather
with a sense of awe. Initially, the text is allocated to the chorus
who have some smoothly contoured, melodic material to sing. When
a solo voice enters (track 3, 5’20") it is at the words ‘Et incarnatus’
where soprano Nienke Oostenrijk has a lovely solo which she sings
beautifully. There is a curious effect at the ‘Et resurrexit’.
The overlapping chorus entries with syncopated rhythms sounds
like stammering. Perhaps this is intended to illustrate a tumult.
It’s a novel, brief passage but even after several hearings I’m
not quite sure it comes off; it sounds a bit gabbled; though I’m
sure this is not the fault of the performers.
Following the Credo Verhulst interpolates a brief
movement for a capella chorus. The annotators describe
‘Inclina Domine’ as "a jewel in the crown of Verhulst’s vocal
output." It certainly is an impressive piece and it shows the
choir off to good advantage, confirming that the Netherlands Concert
Choir is a well-blended, flexible ensemble.
The Sanctus begins enterprisingly with a series
of swelling orchestral chords, each of which ends, leaving the
choir singing the word "Sanctus" unaccompanied. This opening is
oddly subdued for what is conventionally a paean of praise but
I find the gesture effective and original. It’s the sort of thing
Berlioz might have done, which is ironic since Verhulst disliked
the French master’s music. After this, the tripping fugal passage
on the words "Pleni sunt Caeli" seems a bit of an anti-climax.
It may not have been liturgically correct to reprise the word
"Sanctus" at the end of this movement, as Verhulst does, but I’m
glad he did.
A hushed orchestral prelude leads without a break
into the Benedictus which particularly features the soloists.
There is a lovely melodic flow to this movement and the orchestral
accompaniment is most attractive. It is, in sum, a charming movement.
The shadow of Beethoven is much in evidence in
the Agnus Dei. The movement opens strongly and dramatically. However,
following the model of many eighteenth century Mass settings,
Verhulst lightens the texture for "Dona Nobis Pacem" (track 7,
from 5’53") with a dancing theme, closely related to the motif
associated with the words ‘deine Zauber, deine Zauber’ in the
finale of Beethoven’s Ninth. The annotators tell us that this
motif is heard no less than seven times and it does seem that
here Verhulst makes a little go rather a long way in concluding
his Mass. He does rather repeat himself here, I feel.
This Mass setting may not break much new ground
but it is an interesting discovery; an attractive and substantial
work which repays repeated listening. It receives here a fine
and committed first recording from Bamert and his forces. As I’ve
already commented the notes are first class and the Latin text
is provided along with translations which, like the notes, are
in English, French and German. As is customary with Chandos the
recorded sound is full-bodied and clear though I did think at
times that it might have been better if the choir had been a bit
more prominent in the balance.
This is an enterprising release which should
be of interest to listeners with an enquiring ear, particularly
those keen to find something a bit different in the nineteenth
century choral repertoire. Recommended.
An enterprising release … of interest to listeners with an enquiring
ear, particularly those keen to find something different in the
nineteenth century choral repertoire. … see Full Review