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Joseph RYELANDT (1870-1965)
Canon en Trio for piano, violin and cello, Op. 70 (1918) [2:36]
Violin Sonata No. 4, Op. 63 (1916) [14:09]
Cello Sonata No. 2, Op. 66 (1917) [14:24]
Romance for violin and piano, Op. 59 (1915) [6:43]
Violin Sonata No. 5, Op. 71 (1918) [20:10]
Nocturne for cello and piano, Op. 64 (1916) [4:37]
De la Haye Ensemble (Hans Cammaert (violin), Daan De Vos (cello), Bart Meuris (piano))
rec. 1-2 July 2015, 10 October 2015, Studio C, Antwerp, Belgium
First Recordings (sonatas)

According to the sleeve-notes, the Toccata Classics label was set up ‘explicitly to release recordings of music – from the Renaissance to the present day – that the microphones have been ignoring … basically if it’s good music and it hasn’t yet been recorded, Toccata Classics is exploring it.’ This is an admirable aim, and, along with some other well-respected labels, like CPO, it is definitely introducing the CD-buying public to a vast array of unfamiliar music and composers every month. There will be occasions when it really might have been kinder to have let a particular sleeping dog continue to lie undisturbed, but in the vast majority of instances, they’ve proved clear winners.

The present CD is the first release in a series exploring the chamber music for piano and strings by little-known composer Joseph Victor Marie Ryelandt. He was from a country arguably far better represented by its beer and chocolates than by its composers. Ryelandt was born in Bruges, into a wealthy bourgeois family where music mattered a great deal. Rather like Schumann before him, he first studied philosophy and law at university, while continuing his musical activities. Instead of following in the footsteps of his lawyer-father, he eventually devoted himself exclusively to composing, fortunate enough to be of independent means. World War I, however, badly affected his financial situation, and he found himself compelled to look for a job, which saw him appointed director of the Municipal Conservatory at the age of fifty-four. World War II caused his composing activities to slow down further, writing nothing at all from 1940 to 1942, and only a few chamber-music pieces between 1943 and 1948. After this he ceased writing altogether. The German administration forced him to stand down in 1943, though he was reinstated after the liberation of Belgium in 1944. He retired of his own volition the following year, and died at the ripe old age of ninety-five, after a short illness.

Ryelandt’s national, and international reputation such as it is, was made primarily by his religious works. He wrote six symphonies (review ~ review; Nos. 3 and 5 have also been recorded on the René Gailly label), five of which remain. Having destroyed the first he wrote a symphonic poem ‘Ghethsemani’. There are also three overtures and three orchestral preludes as well as a short orchestral suite. Having trained as a pianist until he was about twenty, it comes as no surprise that his piano output is vast, and includes twelve sonatas, two sonatinas, two volumes of preludes and more besides, as well as being a major composer of art songs.

In terms of chamber music, the piano also features prominently. There are seven sonatas with violin, three with cello, one each with horn, oboe and clarinet respectively, two piano quintets (review), and a piano trio (review). He also wrote four string quartets. His chamber works, in fact, offer a glimpse into his stylistic evolution, and his music in general, which tends towards the introspective, and sees its origins in a mix of German Romantic harmony, and decorative polyphony – effectively the influences of Franck and Wagner, with memories of Bach and Handel.

According to the exhaustive sleeve-notes by Jan Dewilde, the present CD, part of a larger project designed to resurrect Ryelandt’s music, comprises the chamber music he wrote during the First World War – in total, though not all recorded here, a trio, three piano sonatas, two violin sonatas, one cello sonata, and a number of shorter works. The opening work, Canon in Trio attests to the composer’s penchant for counterpoint, and is the only surviving portion of an easy trio Ryelandt wrote for three of his eight children, which they would have played during their regular Sunday-afternoon family music-making sessions. Essentially a canon at the octave for the two strings, with the piano providing a mainly supportive role, it is a pleasant enough work – perhaps not quite the ‘little gem’ Dewilde describes it as. It is not quite in the César Franck mould, in terms of the canon-finale.

The Fourth Violin Sonata again is easy and pleasant listening, particularly the middle ‘Adagio’, well-constructed enough though without breaking any new ground. It is reminiscent at times of Debussy’s early Piano Trio, which was written at the age of eighteen.

The Second Cello Sonata has a pastoral opening which later becomes imbued with greater harmonic colouring, from chromatic shades to modality. There is a decidedly religious sound to the chant-like theme that opens the second movement, before a wistfully chromatic section takes over. This adds somewhat to the music’s overall appeal, as does the ensuing ‘Allegro energico’ section that pre-empts the return to the calm of the opening – definitely a track with something more original to say, and for the first time so far. In fact I would use Dewilde’s ‘little gem’ as a more apt description for this movement, rather than the somewhat ordinary Canon heard earlier. The closing Rondo doesn’t add that much more, although cyclic elements occur, where references to earlier movements’ themes are noticed. As with the Violin Sonata, the ending remains low-key and understated.

The Romance for violin and piano makes effective use of contrast, from the calm and peaceful opening, to the impetuous and more impassioned middle section, even though the piece does feel as if some judicious pruning could have helped matters somewhat.

The Fifth Violin Sonata has moved on from its predecessor, and exhibits an overall more imposing conception. This is noticeable in the greater use again of cyclic effects, something that Franck developed. Indeed, the harmonic language here is more that of Ryelandt’s Belgian compatriot than his French colleague. There is a particularly appealing section some two minutes into the finale, with an almost Satie-like feel, before the music accelerates back to its opening ‘Allegro con fuoco’ tempo. It then presses onwards to the dénouement, which, for the first time, maintains its grandeur to the close; this despite a very minor crisis of confidence a few seconds from the end.

The Nocturne for cello and piano has a devotional feel, not surprising given its dedication to ‘Monsieur le docteur Fr. Van Den Abeelé’. It is cast in a conventional ternary design, where the middle section is much freer, especially harmonically, and where the use of pedal points – a sustained or repeated note in the bass, over which the harmony changes, albeit still tethered to the bass – is relaxed. The piece – which was also played in a version for violin and piano – is more successful than the earlier Romance, because here, Ryelandt has judged his length to perfection, in terms of holding the listener’s attention throughout.

Given that Ryelandt never intended to set the world alight with his music, this CD doesn’t make an immediate impression, as was the case with a number of other issues on Toccata, equally by similarly unknown composers. Indeed the composer said it all with: ‘It is for the future to decide whether a part of my work will survive me to serve the greater glory of God’ (1940). Individual movements stand out for special mention, and, overall, the Fifth Violin Sonata in particular has some good things to share.

The recording is excellent, as, largely, is the playing, although at times the slightly thin tone of the violin, and occasional intonation issues, would, I feel, legislate against the award of full marks here. If you’re a chamber-music aficionado looking to increase your collection of eminently listenable CDs, by a composer probably unknown to most of us, and who hails from Belgium, then this CD could be of some interest.

Philip R Buttall



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