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Johan Wagenaar, as you may have guessed from his name, was Dutch. In the booklet, he is described as “the most popular Dutch composer in the twentieth century”. He studied in Berlin, had a range of performing positions, and was the director of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague for almost twenty years.
The first volume of his “symphonic poems” – orchestral works would have been a more accurate title – was not reviewed here. It includes Saul and David, Wagenaar’s contribution to the celebrations in 1906 of the three hundredth anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth. The notes talk of a growing sense of Dutch nationalism around this time, though how this might have played out in music is not clear.
Also mentioned in the notes is the strong Germanic influence on Dutch composers of the time. I have to say that this is not particularly obvious to me in the five works presented here. Genial is the word that comes to mind: they are certainly not dramatic in any way at all. The Sinfonietta has a smile on its face for almost its entire time: even the Adagio non troppo has no intense emotions, more a satisfied reverie. The Allegro marciale finale makes me think of Malcolm Arnold in dance mode. If that makes the work sound a little trite, then think of a Mozart.
Of the other works, the late Elverhöi makes the greatest impression. It uses an old Danish saga of a knight tempted by fairies, but again the range of moods is relatively limited. There are some quite lovely moments that I will call “woodland” and some light-hearted dances. This is certainly not music that one would date to 1940.
My inclination would be to describe all these pieces as very well-crafted “light music”, which is certainly not what I expected when I acquired the recording. Is that a bad thing? On a hot Australian summer day, it suits my mood better than an intense and powerful Straussian tone poem.
The recording is appropriately transparent and while I have absolutely nothing to compare them with, the performances seem very satisfactory. The Wikipedia entry for Wagenaar lists a number of other orchestral works which have not appeared thus far. I don’t know whether a third volume is planned, but with a running time at well under the hour, this one could have been better filled.