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Piet SWERTS (b. 1960)

Droombeelden (1986)
Paul GILSON (1865 – 1942)

Rhapsody Alla marcia (1890)
Wilfried WESTERLINCK (b. 1945)

Landschappen II (1991)
Arthur MEULEMANS (1884 – 1966)

Adagio in C (1939)
Frits CELIS (b. 1929)

Fantasia Op.45b (1993)
Raymond SCHROEYENS (b. 1933)

Al di la del Sonno (1997)
Czech Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, Brno/Edmond Saveniers
Recorded: G-Studio, Brno, August 2003
PHAEDRA 92038 [65:37]

The present Phaedra release (In Flanders’ Fields 38) is entirely devoted to works for string orchestra by Flemish composers of different generations and stylistic horizons, Paul Gilson being – as it were – the Grand Old Man. As an influential pedagogue, Gilson exerted a major influence on a number of Belgian composers of the early 20th Century. The "Synthesists", as they called themselves, were all pupils of Gilson. His reputation as a pedagogue, however, somewhat obscured his compositional achievement that was far from negligible. His best-known work is the orchestral suite De Zee ("The Sea" – 1891) that was recorded during the LP era, whereas Frederik Devreese recorded it in CD format for Marco Polo several years ago (8.223039). His output includes a number of works for wind and brass bands as well as two saxophone concertos. His rhapsody Alla marcia was written at about the same time as De Zee, and is a most attractive example of Gilson’s music, steeped in late Romanticism as well as nodding towards some contemporary trends of its time. The march-like sections sometimes bring early Holst and Bridge to mind, whereas the slower sections are redolent of Borodin. This lovely work is an enjoyable miniature of great verve. Meulemans is one of the first significant Flemish composers who overtly embraced Impressionism and, thus, freed Flemish music from the then prevailing German Romanticism. His Adagio in C (1939), which is new to me, is a deeply felt elegy of great expressive strength conspicuously free from sentimentality. A most welcome addition to this composer’s discography.

Frits Celis (seventy this year, 2004) and Raymond Schroeyens (also seventy this year) represent the first generation of modern composers in Flanders. After a long and busy career as conductor and pedagogue, Frits Celis has consistently and regularly composed since his retirement. His present output includes works in almost every genre, with the notable exception of opera, which is the more surprising since he spent many years as conductor both at the Monnaie in Brussels and at the Flemish Opera in Antwerp. His Fantasia sopra qualche vecchie canzoni Fiamminghe Op.45b, composed in 1993 originally for flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon and arranged for strings the same year, is a free rhapsody on some old Flemish songs in which the composer avoids the all too easy trap of mere harmonisation. He turns his work in a short tone poem of some sort evoking the different moods suggested by the folk tunes. (Incidentally, there also exists a version for clarinet quartet [Op.45c – 1994] and another one for saxophone quartet [Op.45d – 1997].) Raymond Schroeyens may be better known (i.e. in Belgium) as an organist and a harpsichordist, but he is also a most distinguished composer in his own rights, and his Al di la del Sonno ("Beyond the Dream") is the most substantial work in this selection. The first panel of this diptych (Ombre erranti) beautifully and atmospherically evokes the souls’ sorrowful roaming (march-like pizzicati) and the uncertainty of their quest (eerie harmonics, flageolets, etc.) whereas the second panel (Ombre beati) concludes in hard-won peacefulness.

Younger generations are represented by Wilfried Westerlinck (born 1945) and Piet Swerts (born 1960). Westerlinck has composed five works so far, all sharing the same title (Landschappen, i.e. ‘landscapes’ in Dutch) for various instrumental combinations. (Landschappen IV for flute, harp and string trio is available on Phaedra 92012.) All these pieces are purely abstract works evoking moods rather than impressions. Landschappen II, composed in 1979 and arranged for twelve solo strings in 1991, is no exception. The short introduction opening with a nine-tone chord that will keep recurring throughout the whole piece, albeit in various guise, leads into the main part of the piece, which – as a whole – may be experienced as a set of variations of some sort. Piet Swerts is a versatile composer with a substantial body of works to his credit, ranging from short piano pieces the whole way through to grand opera (Les liaisons dangereuses of 1994-1996) and large-scale oratorio (St. Mark Passion of 1988), in which concertos feature generously : three piano concertos (1984, 1986 and 1991), of which the second Rotations was the test piece for the finals of the 1987 Queen Elisabeth Competition, a violin concerto Zodiac (1992) that was the test piece for the 1993 Queen Elisabeth Competition, a guitar concerto Capriccio (1986), a Concertino for double bass quartet and orchestra and a Cello Concerto (1996), as well as two symphonies (1990 and 1997). His superbly crafted music primarily aims at direct communication, without writing down to its audiences. It clearly belongs to the 20th Century mainstream, often nodding towards Bartok. (Swerts also often refers to the music of Dutilleux as a model.) This is particularly clear in his magnificent Droombeelden ("Dream Images") for strings that falls into two parts of fairly equal length (Prologue and Nocturne). The Prologue, subtitled De verschrikking ("Terror") opens in a violently troubled mood and moves towards a deceptively calmer section before reverting to the mood of the opening, whereas the Nocturne (subtitled Een zweem of hoop, i.e. "A shimmer of hope") attempts at alleviating the dark, sorrowful mood of its opening. The hymn-like coda contains some of the finest music that Swerts has ever penned.

So, in short, this recent Phaedra release is a marvellous cross-section of splendid works, all beautifully crafted and deserving wider exposure. These performances are quite fine, as far as I can judge. This is one of the loveliest discs that I have heard recently and one I warmly and unreservedly recommend.

Hubert Culot

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