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Jan van GILSE (1881-1944)
Symphony No. 4 in A major (1913) [41.08]
Concert Overture in C minor (1900) [10.14]
Funeral Music on the Death of Uilenspiegel [11.05]
Netherlands Symphony Orchestra/David Porcelijn
rec. 23-28 August 2010, Enschede Muziekcentrum
CPO 777 689-2 [62.33]

Experience Classicsonline

I have to admit that up to the moment that I first played this CD I had not heard any music by Jan van Gilse. I was surprised and indeed pleased to learn that these same forces have recorded his previous three symphonies; the Third is on CPO 7775182 (see review of Symphonies 1 and 2). I don’t feel too bad about it as, to quote the fascinating and lengthy booklet essay by John Smit (up to CPO usual standards of scholarship) Gilse’s music “was entirely forgotten subsequent to his death” and “European publishing houses were not interested in it”. These notes are brilliant at telling the complex and ultimately tragic story of the life and career of van Gilse. He was even buried under a different name and his two sons fell victim to the Nazis. That said we are given little, if any, analytical background to tell whether, how and these scores were published.
The Dutch, rather like the British are very bad at promoting their own culture. Anyway if this disc is representative then van Gilse is an important figure in 20th century Dutch music. He is also an imposing and somewhat severe one if the photo in the booklet is anything to go by.
To start, oddly enough at the end, the disc concludes with the Overture in C minor, a student work dating back to his time at Cologne University. The orchestration is I suspect rather functional but this is a significant piece for a young man. Van Gilse revised it after its first performance at an “Examinations Concert’ and then lost interest after a series of airings. If only he could have heard this performance. The serious opening grows into an strong Allegro and then ends positively. It’s well structured and its material is memorable.
The Treurmuziek written on the death of Uilenspiegel was extracted from his opera Thijl which was not produced until over twenty years after his death. Its subject matter was not suitable for an occupied country but at least the composer was able to hear this orchestral extract in 1941. With its ponderous and tragic gait it makes suitable and moving wartime fare. It was also performed in a memorial concert to the composer just after the war by the Concertgebouw, an orchestra van Gilse decided not to conduct at this time as all of its Jewish members had been removed. Van Gilse himself was also practically removed, and wiped from musical history as a result.
The Symphony No. 4, if I may use that vacuous and overtaxed word, is ‘charming’ in many ways. It also has a great many hidden and powerful depths, which like most music only gradually reveal themselves. I was struck by the colour and delicacy of the orchestration, for instance some attractive pitched percussion and, I think, two harps. I was intrigued by what was at times a Richard Straussian influence -not surprising as the two composers knew each other. Due to politics and van Gilse’s anti-Nazi and pro-Jewish principles they never quite ‘hit it off’. At times in the first and fourth movements (the longest) there’s a feel of early Mahler. Yet it’s the third movement with its loving and lingering first subject and its magical middle section and woodwind solos over rippling and trilling strings, which I have returned to. Also attractive is the extravert and joyous opening of the fourth movement with its terrific brass writing. This movement, weighing in at over thirteen minutes, for my taste goes on a little too long especially in its rather repetitive march-like middle section. Also the material of the Intermezzo second movement is not contrasted enough with much of the first movement. Even with these criticisms registered the overall pleasure and general feeling of up-lift tells convincingly in favour of this work.
Ultimately this music is well served by these highly polished and committed performances and by the wonderfully rich and clear recording.
Rare repertoire certainly and some of it has not been heard since the composer himself directed it almost one hundred years ago. This is a composer well worth discovering.
Gary Higginson

see also review by Rob Barnett 

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