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Johannes VERHULST (1816-1891)
Overture in B minor op.2, Overture in C minor op.3 – "Gijsbrecht van Aemstel", Overture in D minor op.8, Symphony in E minor op.46
Residentie Orchestra The Hague/Matthias Bamert
Rec. 11 December 2001 (op.2), 26 Feb-1 Mar 2002 (others), Dr Anton Philipszaal, The Hague
CHANDOS CHAN10179 [58:35]

Johannes Verhulst seems to be a casualty of the syndrome to which followers of the early wave of romanticism were prone. Like Gade and Sterndale Bennett he enjoyed the admiration of Mendelssohn and Schumann (whose Overture, Scherzo and Finale was dedicated to him) and, as with these, his early romantic urge lapsed into conservatism. As the leading conductor in The Netherlands (and by all accounts a very fine one) his days as a composer were all but finished with his sole symphony of 1841, though thanks to his own promotional efforts this work and his Mass (also available from Chandos) held a place in the repertoire of his own country till his death. In his last years his conservatism and above all his refusal to perform Wagner (though he did conduct Bruckner’s 3rd Symphony) transformed him from Holland’s most esteemed musician – he was simply referred to as "the Great Man" – into one if its most reviled. He spent his last years in splendid isolation.

The three overtures are ably put together with suggestions of Mendelssohn and Schumann, and also, particularly in the first, touches of Rossini too, not only in the cut of the melodies but in the relatively exuberant percussion writing. The symphony has rather more stature: I suppose I don’t know enough Dutch music to be able to say if it has any specifically Dutch character but it seems to breathe a similar Nordic air to Gade and stands up fairly well beside at least some of that composer’s symphonies. I realise I don’t sound wildly enthusiastic but it is a well-made, likeable piece. Some time it might be interesting to hear some of Verhulst’s songs to Dutch texts since here at least he must have been compelled to strike out on a path of his own.

Opp. 2 and 8 are billed as first recordings. Op.3 is also available from NM Classics as part of a collection of overtures by various Dutch composers which I haven’t heard. The Symphony was recorded in 1981 by the same orchestra under Hans Vonk as part of a four-volume survey of Dutch music, once available from Olympia. I must say that if you have this latter there is little point in adding the present disc to your collection. I have never thought of Vonk as a particularly characterful conductor, but by the side of Bamert he seems to be so. Bamert has the busy Mendelssohnian string writing very neatly executed but that is about the sum of it. Vonk has far more long-term phrasing and rhythmic buoyancy (the Eroica-influenced accents on the second beat of so many bars in the first movement do not slog, for instance). The music has more light and shade in his hands, with the possible exception of the second movement where Bamert’s slightly broader tempo has its attractions. Whether prospective purchasers should hold their fire in the hopes of a reissue of the Vonk performance only they can decide, but if you buy this disc and do not find a great deal in the Symphony the fact remains that Vonk may lead you to think otherwise (as he did in my case).

Neither players nor engineers do anything to suggest that the Hague strings are more numerous or more rich-toned than is the reality. The rather overbearing brass and wind and resonant sound may seem typical of Chandos, but since the earlier Olympia recording sounds remarkably similar I take it to be a faithful reflection of this particular hall. The notes are detailed and useful, and do not attempt to pitch Verhulst’s claims unrealistically high.

Christopher Howell



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