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Klaas de VRIES (b. 1944)
A King, Riding (1996)
Lisa Saffer (Jinny, coloratura soprano); Rosemary Hardy (Suzan, lyric soprano); Gerrie de Vries (Rhoda, mezzo-soprano); Bruce Rameker (Neville, countertenor); Stuart Kale (Louis, tenor); Harry van der Kamp (Bernard, baritone); Marijke van Kooten (violin); Lucia Swarts (cello); Susanne van Els (viola); Leendert de Jonge (flutes); Walter van Hauwe (recorders); Harry Sparnaay (bass clarinet); André Heuvelman (trumpet); Jean-Marc Sullon (sound realisation and processing);
Asko Ensemble and Schönberg Ensemble; Reinbert de Leeuw
Rec: Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, February 2001 and Muziekcentrum Vredenburg, Utrecht, February 2001


A King, Riding, that the composer describes as a scenic oratorio, is actually de Vries’ second opera, completed some twelve years after his first essay in the genre, Eréndira of 1984. De Vries, however, has composed several works for voices, such as the magnificent Areas (1980, chorus and orchestra, incidentally the very first piece of his that I have heard), Phrases (1986, soprano, chorus and orchestra) and Diafonía, la creacíon (1988/9, two female voices and ensemble) that is the first panel of a triptych composed between 1988 and 1991. (The other panels of the triptych are ...Sub nocte per umbras... [1989] and De Profundis [1991], and a complete recording of the triptych is available on Donemus CV34, whereas Areas and Phrases are part of another all-de Vries disc [Donemus CV25].)

De Vries’ scenic oratorio A King, Riding is based on Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, which along with James Joyce’s Ulysses, has become a cult piece of art of some sort. As to The Waves, it may be interesting to know that the Dutch film director Annette Pon made a movie out of it, for which Louis Andriessen wrote a fairly substantial score. In the insert notes, Klaas de Vries retells how he came to compose this piece. Several musicians had asked him for solo works, so that the idea that he could combine these commissions into one single large-scale work slowly made its way in his mind. But what of a possible libretto? Woolf’s The Waves was suggested to him by one of his students. Then, a close look at the novel as well as at Yourcenar’s French translation (in her introduction, she states that "it is a book with six characters, or rather six instruments") convinced de Vries to go on. He had to pare Woolf’s text down drastically; but he nevertheless included three poems by Fernando Pessoa (in the sections names Heterophony I-III). These texts relate in one way or another to what has gone on before in the course of the work. Heterophony I functions as an epilogue of some sort at the end of Part 1, whereas Heterophony II and Heterophony III rather function as interludes in Part 2.

A King, Riding is scored for six singers, seven solo instruments and large wind ensemble with some sound realisation and processing (all discretely and tastefully done) by Jean-Marc Sullon from the Centre de Recherches et de Formation Musicales de Wallonie. Each character has an instrumental alter ego : Jinny (coloratura soprano and violin), Suzan (lyric soprano and cello), Rhoda (mezzo-soprano and viola), Neville (countertenor and flutes), Louis (tenor and recorders), Bernard (baritone and bass clarinet), whereas Percival is embodied by a dancer "doubled" by the trumpet. So, in the Overture, each solo instrument has a cadenza of its own, whereas later in the piece, each instrument dialogues with its vocal counterpart. (This in fact perfectly meets Woolf’s own description of her novel as a series of dramatic soliloquies.)

In A King, Riding (and in The Waves as well), the six characters (three boys and three girls) remember their childhood, their adolescence, their parting with their friend Percival whom they tend to idealise, and eventually Percival’s death. Percival remains a mystery throughout, and one may even wonder whether he has ever existed. After all, he may just be the embodiment of their juvenile ideals that they have not achieved at this point of their own life. "As a reflection on life, The Waves is likewise an essay on human solitude" (Marguerite Yourcenar). There is indeed very little real dialogue here, but rather ensembles in which each voice seems to go its own way rather than fuse with the other. This is particularly clear in Episode III of Part 2 ("Three Women") in which each of the girls has her own say in turn, so that this episode never builds-up to the ensemble that one might have expected. It is rather a set of three duos (the voice and its instrumental shadow), one of the most moving moments in this score although I feel that some opportunities for some lyrical outpouring have been missed. Actually, the only sections, in which the six voices meet, are – significantly enough, I think – the Heterophony sections that are all very beautiful, Heterophony III for six unaccompanied voices being particularly beautiful and moving. In fact, this section may be the real summit of the whole score, musically and emotionally as well.

The overall layout of A King, Riding is rather unusual. It falls into two main parts of fairly equal length; but the most striking feature of it all is the Overture that plays for 31 minutes (out of 51 minutes for the entire Part 1). "The way in which the day begins out of nothing made me realise where the actual beginning of the composition lay" (Klaas de Vries). Indeed, the first part – and the overture – opens almost unnoticed, out of the audience’s rustle and the orchestra’s tuning-up, with mysterious, almost other-worldly sounds (hushed singing and electronically processed sounds). Soft orchestral sounds and vocal whispers follow ("The novel begins with a description of the sea before sunrise, in a state of semi-darkness...", which is perfectly, almost graphically conveyed through the opening music). The first and second episodes of Part 1 deal with the characters’ childhood (their games, their first loves) and are rounded-off by the first Heterophony section. Part 2 falls into three clearly delineated sections separated by Heterophony II and III, the latter preceding the concluding section. Episodes I to III deal with the characters’ student days. Heterophony II is followed by Episode IV (farewell dinner party to Percival) and Episode V ("Lamento on the death of Percival"). The deeply moving Heterophony III leads into the closing scene.

A King, Riding is a major work by all counts and one of de Vries’ greatest achievements so far; but it is also a good example of the comparative failure of many recent operatic works. Composers are often tempted to compose on librettos of real literary value and, thus, see that words are clearly heard and understood. All is well, of course, but this often results in using either spoken words or some sort of Sprechstimme, so that many lyrical opportunities are lost. This is the case in some episodes of A King, Riding. Episode V of Part 2 ("Lamento") is, to my mind, one such fine opportunity gone wrong. On the other hand, there are many really fine things here, such as the Three Women episode and the Heterophony sections.

The present recording was apparently assembled from two live performances recorded in different venues; but the recorded sound is very fine indeed (this is – to the best of my knowledge – Donemus’ first SACD release), thanks too to very quiet and disciplined audiences. Most musicians taking part in these performances have a close and long association with de Vries’ music; and, with the composer at hand, this set has an unquestioned ring of authenticity.

Sorry for an unusually long review, but A King, Riding is a substantial and complex, albeit slightly flawed major achievement that deserves some serious consideration. No easy stuff, although de Vries’ music is not particularly difficult, but well worth the effort. This is a major release.

Hubert Culot


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