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Willem JETHS (b. 1959)
Symphony No. 1 for orchestra and mezzo-soprano (2012) [37:37]
Recorder Concerto (2014) [20:00]
Karin Strobos (mezzo soprano), Erik Bosgraf (recorder)
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Edo de Waart (Symphony), Markus Stenz
rec. 13 April 2013 (Symphony) and 20 December 2014, Concertgebouw Amsterdam.
Texts and English translations included

Dutch composer Willem Jeths already has a distinguished and award-winning career behind him with numerous recording credits, but this seems to be the first time a review of his work has appeared on MWI. Jeths’ earlier style gives more of an avant-garde impression than the more tonal and the Mahlerian romanticism of parts of this First Symphony – the jury for his prizes at the Vienna International Composition Competition included Wolfgang Rihm and Franco Donatoni – but whatever your opinion of those soundworlds this is a work that offers plenty of points of contact in common with traditions that reach back beyond the militant prickliness of mid 20th century modernism.

Mahler is a big feature of this symphony, the second movement originally having been premiered in 2010 as Scale – Le tombeau de Mahler. The success of this performance prompted a further accompanying piece, Metanoia from 2012, the third movement. The organic development of these now revised works saw the addition of two outer movements which use poems from Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan that explore the theme of the cyclic aspects of existence. Texts are given with English translations in the booklet. This cyclic theme is reflected in a cyclic form, with interconnections between both its musical and philosophical content. Karin Strobos’s expressive but nicely reserved mezzo is perfect for these settings.

This is a substantial work that invites study and exploration, and the booklet notes hint at Jeths’ symbolic use of material from Alban Berg as well as Mahler, their strong associations with “life, death and transformation” expressed in Goethe’s words and a rich tapestry of harmonic effects and melodic shapes that call on our nostalgia neurons in similar ways you might respond to a whiff of woodsmoke or a familiar but long-forgotten perfume. There is drama, intensity and occasional musical violence here, but the overall impression is of slowness, the depth of the worlds examined enriched by the pungent character of a saxophone, offstage musicians, and a generally magical touch when it comes to orchestration.

Willem Jeths has already written numerous concertos for familiar and less commonplace solo instruments. This Recorder Concerto is especially written for the performer on this recording, Erik Bosgraaf, and the two collaborated closely on the type of instrument best suited to balance with a full orchestra. “To me, the sound of the recorder represents innocence and fragile purity. I had to give the soloist enough scope to let him put these qualities across to the best possible effect. My orchestration is therefore deliberately thin.” The qualities of the recorder also guided the symbolic theme of the work, “the vulnerable purity of a child’s spirit.”

As with the symphony, there is a quality of transformation about the Recorder Concerto that deals with adversity and ultimately resolves it into “personal transcendence, [and] about bidding farewell to youth and the demise of the inner child.” This is by no means a childish work, and the grim atmosphere of the opening makes sure we know this from the outset. A reference to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder early on sets the seal on this aspect of the piece, but with its water gong, sparing sonorities and non-chromatic feel there are also moments with an exotic and perhaps oriental atmosphere. Simplicity at the heart of the concerto anchors our sensibilities, and tenderness shines through even where the music is at its darkest – love conquering all, and more powerful and defiant than you might expect in this particular soundworld.

Superbly performed and recorded, these works are both significant additions to the contemporary music canon. They are well paired as a programme, and Willem Jeths can be justifiably proud of the results of many years gestation when it comes to his First Symphony. These are not works to dispel any impressions you may have of the introspective nature of much music and literature in the Netherlands, but if you miss having something new with real Mahlerian heft to get your teeth into then this is a superb place for more than just a quick bite.

Dominy Clements



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