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Wagenaar orchestral 4258332
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Johan WAGENAAR (1862-1941)
De getemde feeks, Op 25 (1909) [6:57]
Saul en David, Op 24 (1906) [12:06]
Driekoningenavond, Op 36 (1928, rev, 1932) [9:53]
De Cid, Op 27 (1916) [5:07]
Amphitrion, Op 45 (1938) [8:10]
Weiner Dreivierteltakt, Op 38 (1929) [9:37]
Cyrano de Bergerac, Op 23 (1905) [13:51]
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
rec. February-May 1989, Concertgebouw Hall, Amsterdam
Presto CD
DECCA 425 833-2 [66:08]

I’ve read a number of reviews by my colleague, Rob Barnett, that indefatigable seeker-out of unfamiliar repertoire, in which he has appraised recordings of Dutch composers whose names – let alone their music – were unknown to me. My interest piqued, I decided to dip my toe into the water when the opportunity came to review this Decca disc of music by Johan Wagenaar which Presto Classical have licenced for their on-demand catalogue. In fact, on searching our site once the disc had arrived, I found that Rob had previously covered a CPO disc of orchestral music by this very composer (review) and David Barker had assessed the companion disc (review). There is some overlap of repertoire between those discs and Riccardo Chailly’s selection.

This disc was recorded early on in the period (1988-2004) when Chailly was Chief Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. I don’t know how much Dutch music he gave in concert or recorded during his tenure but perhaps this CD was a courteous nod, early in his tenure in Amsterdam, towards the music of Holland.

I learned from Luc van Hasselt’s succinct notes that Johan Wagenaar was born in Utrecht. Despite a humble, indeed impecunious background, his musical talent shone through and he obtained the necessary tuition to equip him for life as a musician. During his career, besides his work as a composer, he was active at various times as a cathedral organist (Utrecht) and as an eminent musical teacher (Utrecht music school, followed by a lengthy spell (1919-37) as director of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague). He also conducted choirs and spent a portion of his career as an orchestral violinist. He had, it seems, a full and multi-faceted career and he was clearly a prominent figure in Dutch musical life during his lifetime.

Riccardo Chailly here offers us a nicely varied selection of orchestral music. I find the music consistently attractive, imaginatively scored and well-constructed. In addition, Wagenaar had a genuine melodic gift. Luc van Hasselt cites Berlioz as a (limited) influence on his orchestral music and, much more so, Richard Strauss. I get the Strauss affinity but would hasten to add that Wagenaar is very much his own man. Incidentally, I strongly part company with van Hasselt’s disparaging comment about Strauss when he says “[Wagenaar’s] orchestration is every bit as beautiful and never verges on the shallow virtuosity that all too often mars Strauss’s works.” I’ve found a lot to enjoy in Wagenaar’s music as presented here, not least his excellent orchestration, but on this evidence, he was a highly accomplished composer whilst Strauss was a great composer. Not all of Strauss’s works were of equal depth – as one could say about most composers - but the term “shallow virtuosity” is wide of the mark in my opinion.

Chailly offers two Shakespeare-inspired concert overtures. De getemde feeks (The Taming of the Shrew) is a strong programme opener. It begins with bustling music but then (at 1:32) we hear for the first time a long-breathed lyrical theme, introduced by the strings. We shall encounter this theme again later and it’s well worth a second hearing. The notes suggest that Wagenaar manages to convey a good outline of the play’s plot in what is a fairly short piece. The music is most attractive and colourfully orchestrated. Driekoningenavond (Twelfth Night) is another good piece. It opens with a slow introduction which builds incrementally until (at 2:34) very sprightly, lively music takes over. There’s pleasing variety in the piece and I like the melodies on which Wagenaar bases the overture.

Two pieces have specific links to what was, in Wagenaar’s lifetime, the Concertgebouw Orchestra. One of them is the Dreikoningenavond overture, which was dedicated to Willem Mengelberg and the orchestra. The other is the concert overture Amphitrion which was written for the orchestra’s fiftieth anniversary. There’s much lively, attractive music here, which benefits from the light and shade that Chailly and the players bring to it. At 2:25 a soulful cello solo, expressively voiced by Jean Decroos, leads into a beautifully crafted reflective section.

Another member of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is to the fore in Saul en David. This time, harpist Vera Badings is in the spotlight. She’s the daughter of the composer Henk Badings and clearly, she’s a very sensitive artist. In this symphonic poem there’s an extended solo for the harp (David’s instrument) which she plays beautifully. The harp continues to be prominent as solo woodwind instruments join in. All this is a lovely interlude in a piece which also contains a good deal of both vigorous and brooding music. Apparently, Wagenaar wrote the piece to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of Rembrandt and he took as his inspiration a painting which at that time was attributed to the Dutch master. Decca reproduce the picture on the CD cover but, frankly, it has to compete with so much other artwork that they don’t do justice to what is a very dark-hued painting. I admired Wagenaar’s piece.

I also admired Cyrano de Bergerac. This is another concert overture; this time the inspiration is a play of that name, written in1897 by Edmond Rostand (1868-1918). Luc van Hasselt identifies seven themes in the piece, each one descriptive of a different character trait of the hero. Whilst I can’t claim to have spotted every one of these melodies there’s no doubt that the overture is melodically varied. There’s obviously a good deal of character painting going on here and this aural painting is most effectively done through skilful exploitation of the orchestral palette. This struck me as the most Straussian piece in this collection, not because the excellent orchestration rivals Strauss’s opulence but because Wagenaar, like his German colleague, engages in a lot of illustrative musical storytelling.

De Cid is the overture to a ‘burlesque opera’. Here, it’s presented using the composer’s own concert ending. It’s pleasing but it’s not the most striking piece on the programme. The occasional use of castanets – which is not overdone – is the only evidence of a Spanish flavour; otherwise Wagenaar remans true to his roots and the music is consistent with his own style, a decision which I applaud. The penultimate piece on Chailly’s programme is Weiner Dreivierteltakt, which the composer described as ‘Introduction and waltz cycle for orchestra’. He intended it as a tribute to Johann Strauss and the tribute is evidently sincere; it’s effective too. The Introduction sets the scene nicely and then the waltzes (from 1:54) are a selection of delights – a bit like an indulgent box of chocolates. Many of the waltzes - all of which are short – are vivacious, though there are some slower, more romantic little dalliances along the way. Chailly and the orchestra play them with polish (naturally) and affection. This charming piece is very enjoyable, especially in such a sparkling performance.

I’m very glad that this CD has given me the opportunity to acquaint myself with the music of Johan Wagenaar. Chailly’s selection is a good one and I enjoyed every piece. The performances are excellent in every way and Decca recorded them in fine sound.

I’m glad Presto Classical have restored this disc to circulation. It’s a very good introduction to the music of a skilled and entertaining composer.

John Quinn

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