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Flemish Exploration

ROBERT ANDERSON listens to a little-known 'family'

Romantic Orchestral Music by Flemish composers, volume 1. Copyright (c) 1999 HNH International Ltd.Four of these composers link closely, being pupils or notable inspirers of each other. Arthur Meulemans is the odd man out, not having attended the Royal Flemish Conservatory in Antwerp, where the others taught and learnt. This Flemish five spans three generations, with Peter Benoit, born in 1834, the distinguished grandfather. He has a couple of pieces to his credit, the first a suite from one of his three lyric dramas, in which the play has continuous orchestral accompaniment and the actors declaim in rhythm. The subject is the Pacification of Ghent (1576), by which Catholic and Calvinist Netherlands managed to combine against Spanish soldiery. Beethoven's Egmont had already lost his head, and the protagonist is William the Silent. The tercentenary suite has five movements, opening with the grinding misery of the Dutch as they struggle. The introduction to Act 2 is a love scene between two invented characters; Wagner cannot resist taking a peep [listen]. William the Silent's movement begins with strong, lower-string recitative, whereas the Duke of Alba has a Moorish and exotic touch as he flourishes into Brussels. The final festival has the operatic panache of Verdi, or maybe Meyerbeer whom Benoit probably knew better. The delightful In the Fields for oboe and orchestra on the second disc is an accomplished miniature of great charm.

Lodewijk Mortelmans belongs to the next generation (1868-1952). His most ambitious piece here is a symphonic poem, The Myth of Spring. The sun-god of the Edda wakes the earth goddess from her snowbound hibernation. Much of the piece is easygoing in a countryside 12/8, but Wagner can be relied on to assist the climax. More impressive, though, are the two elegies of 1917, in response to the death of his wife and two children. This is music that matters, coming straight from the heart [listen]. It might equally stand for the plight of Flanders in the First World War. The most effective of Benoit's grandchildren is Lodewijk De Vocht, with a cello concerto of 1956. It starts gruffly enough, but solo lyricism soon takes over [listen]. Neoclassical counterpoints spice the development. The Lento takes a long-drawn cantilena to shape a movement of grave eloquence. The Maypole tendencies of the finale come as a disappointment. Such good-natured clod-hopping is unworthy of an otherwise fine work.


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Copyright © Robert Anderson, December 18th 1999


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