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Bernard ZWEERS (1854-1924)
Concert Overture Saskia (1906) [7:32]
Symphony No. 2 in E flat major (1882-1883) [32:05]
Suite for the incidental music for Vodel's Gijsbrecht van Aemstel (1892) [17:48]
Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Holland/Lukas Vis (suite); Jean Fournet (overture)
Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra/Antoni Wit (symphony)
rec. AVRO Klassiek 12 May 1973 AAD (overture); NPS Radio, 19-21 June 2001 DDD (symphony); VPRO Radio, 11 Sept 1980, AAD (1748). DDD
STERLING CDS-1061-2 [57.26]

Bernard Zweers may be almost forgotten now, but in his day was a major figure in Dutch musical life. Indeed, for a time he was the principal rival of Alphons Diepenbrock, the famous critic, composer and friend of Mahler whose reputation has perhaps been better served by posterity of late. Part of the cause of Zweers’ neglect outside the Netherlands lies in the very reason why he was as successful as he was at home: his patriotic stance and Dutch nationalism of his music, placing him for his native country as an equivalent figure to, say, Grieg in Norway, Smetana in Bohemia or Borodin in Russia. It would do Zweers no justice to pursue those comparisons any further since he was not as inspired a creator or possessed of as personal a vision as those. However there is no denying that his music is well-crafted, ably scored and more than a local curiosity. It is worth recalling his value as a teacher of some of his country’s most eminent twentieth-century composers: Hendrik Andriessen, Bernard van den Sigtenhorst Meijer and Daniel Ruyneman amongst them (all worthy of Sterling’s, or any other label’s, attention).

The present disc provides us with a good cross-section of his orchestral output, in performances ranging from 1973 to 2001. The earliest performance ironically is of the most recent work, the gentle overture Saskia, depicting – or at least inspired by – the wife of the great Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, for the 300th anniversary of whose birth in 1906 it was composed (along with a Rembrandt Symphony by Cornelis Dopper and a considerable body of other works – including a Hymn by Diepenbrock – that might provide a treasure trove for Sterling to explore in the future). According to Leo Samama’s notes, the use of a Marian hymn in the work is suggestive of Saskia’s Catholic faith; whether or not some of the more animated sections depict the tribulations visited upon her by her husband must remain a matter of conjecture for the listener. Jean Fournet turns in a nicely paced account, well if not outstandingly played, the sound still shaping up well.

The style of Saskia is markedly subdued compared to the rather blustery opening of the Second Symphony (1882-3) which simultaneously looks backwards to Schumann and early Brahms and forward to Richard Strauss. The four movements are played without a break but are clearly delineated (as in both Schumann’s and Nielsen’s Fourths, without the structural felicities in Franz Schmidt’s Fourth). The most successful movements are the outer Allegros, in which, by and large, Zweers matches inspiration with perspiration in producing convincing symphonic movements. However, the inner Andante is something of a disappointment, its Tchaikovskian air at odds with the striving nature of the preceding Allegro vivace and suggesting that the music had strayed in from some abandoned pastiche on Swan Lake. The Allegretto con moto scherzo perhaps fares a touch better, especially if one regards it rather as an intermezzo before the return to form of the fugal Allegro finale. There is perhaps a touch of Mendelssohn in both the third and fourth movements, but little that could be construed as Dutch. It would not be until his epic Third Symphony (1887-90, which shares with Walton’s First the curious honour of having had its premiere bereft of an as yet unfinished finale) that Zweers completely mastered the symphony as a form. Antoni Wit directs a clear and superbly articulated performance, splendidly engineered (originally for radio) by Tim Handley.

Curiously, Zweers was much taken with Wagner’s music, particularly Der Ring des Nibelungen, yet it left barely a trace audible in the compositions on offer here. He wrote the music for a gala production of Joost van den Vondel’s historical play Gijsbrecht van Aemstel. Zweers was commissioned to provide a set of five orchestral preludes to open each act and an unaccompanied chorus to conclude each – the choruses are not included on this disc. The preludes were published after his death as a suite without their original titles, but had originally been printed years before in a sumptuous illustrated version of the play with the choruses and additional incidental music composed independently by Diepenbrock at the same time. Indeed, this arrangement appears to have been Zweers’ own idea. Vondel’s play is set on an epic scale, telling the struggle for Amsterdam, its destruction and rebirth, between the hero of the title, Gijsbrecht, Lord of Aemstel and his nemesis Gerard van Velzen. The preludes therefore do not tell the story as in a symphonic suite or poem, nor do they quite encapsulate the drama in the way that Pfitzner’s masterly trio of preludes do in his opera Palestrina, but set the scene (one imagines) most effectively for the act to follow. As Samama rightly suggests, this is akin to the incidental music of Fauré and Sibelius, and none the worse for that. Nonetheless, the five pieces make an effective suite as absolute music and are more consistent in their balance of form and content than the Symphony. Lucas Vis’s account from 1980 brings out the strengths of the score despite a few moments here and there of doubtful intonation and ensemble. As a whole, this impressed me the most of the three works featured here. Hopefully, Sterling will release some more Zweers in due course.

Guy Rickards

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