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Johannes VERHULST (1816-1891)
Mass, Op. 20
Nienke Oostenrijk (soprano); Margriet van Reisen (contralto);
Marcel Reijans (tenor); Hubert Claessens (bass)
The Netherlands Concert Choir
Residentie Orchestra, The Hague/Matthias Bamert
Rec. Dr. Anton Philipszaal, The Hague, The Netherlands; 11-14 December 2001
CHANDOS CHAN 10020 [64’55"]


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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 of Schumann.

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 work.

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.

John Quinn

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

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