Anytime I see contemporary music from a North European country I get nervous, and when I saw that this was Volume 3 I got really nervous. Experience has taught me some things, and one of those things is that some of the most astringent music in the world comes from that area. This time however I was needlessly worried, as Doris Hochscheid’s survey through this genre proves, at least in this volume, that there are some outstanding pieces of music that desperately need to be mined from this source.
Matthijs Vermeulen (1888-1967) was and is regarded as maybe the greatest Dutch composer ever, and he certainly voiced his approval of compatriot Jan Ingenhoven (1876-1951), though the latter has remained relatively unknown. I can’t understand why, at least based on the quality of the work under review. His two short sonatas for cello emanate a remarkable neo-romantic flavor while fully embracing the ethos of Debussy, whose presence can be felt in every bar. Even though the works are only about 15 minutes total, hearing them in sequence is a marvelous experience that makes me wonder if they should always be presented in this duo form.
The notes refer to the Second Sonata of Vermeulen as perhaps one of the “greatest cello sonatas since Debussy”. Any critic reading that automatically goes into skeptic mode, and I did immediately. Now I am not so sure that the hyperbole is in fact such. Twenty years separate his two sonatas, and though the First (1918) is a tremendous piece of music, energetic and about as optimistic in tone as you could ask for; the Second, finally reaching completion in 1938, is sublime. Its polyphonic ecstasy and incredible emotional content grab ahold of you from the first bar and simply won’t let go. Vermeulen had a fascination for older music, and the cantus firmus-like motives that grip this work are powerful and quite moving.
Doris Hochscheid and Frans van Ruth go at this stuff with all the fervor of new converts and seem to really enjoy it, easily up to the task. MDG’s surround sound is excellent, and I am so very happy to have had my first fears assuaged. These are flat out some terrific sonatas, and I cannot imagine anyone not liking them. This is the first SACD of this series that Audiophile Audition has reviewed, and I hope it won’t be the last, as this project is scheduled to fill about six discs.
Given the musical society in which he functioned, Matthijs Vermeulen (1888–1967) may have been the most avant-garde composer of all. Dutch music in the 1920s and ’30s was as conservative and hidebound as any, with no modern-music hub such as Berlin or Paris where new ideas percolated. Willem Pijper was regarded as the ultimate radical composer, whereas Vermeulen was not even accepted as one. Totally rejected in his day, Vermeulen is now perceived by many sophisticated Dutch musicians as Holland’s greatest 20th-century composer—certainly he was its most original one. One might equate him with Charles Ives. Although the arc of their reputations was similar, the Dutchman went much further than the American, who clung to many traditions while pursuing his own new paths. Although Vermeulen had written a rather Mahlerian symphony in 1912–14, the Cello Sonata No. 1 (1918) was his first major statement. Its two movements represent Venus and Mars, the second recalling the opening at its close. It is quite lyrical despite having no tonal center. There are passages that have an Ivesian flavor, although their gossamer wistfulness often gives way to a French clarity in line with Debussy or even Ravel. Vermeulen’s Second Sonata was begun in 1927, following a successful outing of the First, but was abandoned for a decade, being finished in 1938. It is a more conventional sonata and lacks the earlier work’s sense of power and wholeness—the composer had mellowed rather than matured. Nevertheless, its more brilliant passages provide considerable interest for performers and listeners alike.
Jan Ingenhoven (1876–1951) is unknown today; this is the only recording of his music that I have found in 50 years of exploring Dutch music. The New Grove gives him half a page:
In the chamber works Ingenhoven’s style becomes even more exclusive through a combination of the polyphonic elements and a new homophonic approach, with tonally indefinite chords, subtle dynamics and delicate timbre. He devised cantilena-like melodies, quasi-improvised as if he wanted to create a Jugendstil in music.
That fits his only two cello sonatas, brief (8:49 and 6:30), single-movement works from 1919 and 1922, except that I am not sure what is meant by “quasi-improvised” melodies. Both sonatas are formally amorphous, relying on a constantly varied progression of ideas, their delicate scoring revealing a strong French influence. These charming works are certainly worth getting to know.
Doris Hochscheid and Frans van Ruth have distinguished themselves in this series and elsewhere, but the competition is impressive: Vermeulen’s complete works appear on six Donemus CDs (CV 36/37/38), on which the cello sonatas are played by two of Holland’s most honored musicians, Anner Bylsma and Reinbert de Leeuw. Bylsma plays with greater clarity than Hochscheid, but his cello has a distracting buzz; both pianists are superb. Hearing both duos helps one understand Vermeulen’s First Sonata. Its difficulties are more of interpretation and understanding than of execution; Hochscheid and Van Ruth make the more convincing case for it. A fine Dutch stereo recording from the early 1980s is outdone by this gorgeous new disc. SACD clarifies the cello a bit, but surround sound takes away that edge.
James H. North
Opus Haute Définition, April 2011
Le troisième volume de cette remarquable série consacrée aux sonates hollandaises pour violoncelle et piano nous offre l’opportunité de découvrir deux sonates de Matthijs Vermeulen (1888-1967) ainsi que deux autres du compositeur Jan Ingenhoven (1876-1951). Doris Hochscheid au violoncelle et Frans van Ruth au piano défendent ces partitions avec un bonheur communicatif ouvrant ainsi la voie à un univers peu connu que l’on aimerait explorer plus amplement et qui, grâce à ces musiques « révélées », devient accessible pour le plus grand nombre de mélomanes, mais également d’audiophile pouvant apprécier une captation sonore des plus fines. A l’instar des volumes précédents, ce dernier est tout aussi recommandable pour découvrir et savourer un héritage musical passionnant.