Vermeulen: Symphonies

Review by: ClassicsToday

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 10

Dutch composer Matthijs Vermeulen’s wildly complex and inventive music resists easy classification, and yet it does not really do his work justice to say it is an amalgam of Berg, Varèse, Ives, Hartmann, Pettersson, and others. But in effect that is just what it is–an inscrutable, polymelodic kitchen-sink approach to composition. And it is no less fascinating as a result. At once relentless, frantic, fierce, and desolate, Vermeulen’s compositions were barely performed during his own lifetime (1888-1967), and he did not help his cause by systematically estranging himself from the musical establishment (Mengelberg, among others). Until now, his recorded legacy rested with a collection of rough-sounding Dutch radio broadcasts of his orchestral and chamber works underwritten by the Donemus Foundation on the Composer’s Voice label. With this sixth entry in Chandos’ highly regarded Dutch music series, we now have a state-of-the-art production from the Residentie Orchestra under the assured leadership of Gennady Rozhdestvensky that substantially improves upon the well-intentioned efforts of its predecessor in sound quality and orchestral precision.

Vermeulen’s Second Symphony is a 25-minute ecstatic outburst of orchestral energy–the outer movements are the most aggressive and raw of the five, with hair-raising shrieking in the winds, clamorous brass, and pummeling percussion comparable to The Rite of Spring. Character and mood change abruptly throughout this symphony; an extended mysterious oboe solo dominates the gentler second movement, only to be interrupted by the helter-skelter of the third. This seeming cacophony finds its theoretical bearings in Vermeulen’s conceptual thoughts about the structure of melody and how melodic lines help determine pitch (unlike Schoenberg’s 12-tone system), but listeners will find the welter of “melodies” too murky to draw many conclusions. For the most part, this symphony, which has a lot in common with Varèse’s Arcana and still sounds modern today despite its 1920 vintage, presents a chaotic sensory experience.

The Sixth Symphony from the late 1950s invokes Berg in its various arching saxophone solos and raucous multi-layered march motifs. Again, this work exhibits a wide range of orchestral colors and emotions with some striking melodic invention, especially in the wistful English horn solo of the second movement. As with the first symphony, brass fanfares and brazen percussion periodically pierce the musical texture, and the whole of the third movement is one steady, pulsating crescendo that leads to a shattering climax.

The Seventh Symphony, Vermeulen’s last and the shortest of the three here, is hardly less manic in the first and third movements, suffused as they are with his (now) customary barbaric percussion and brass displays. The second movement, underpinned by an undulating harp twinkling in the distance, possesses an eerie and captivating repose. By the end of this disc, you will feel as if you’ve been assaulted by an orchestral arsenal of dizzying proportions. And who said the Dutch were staid?



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: this one for this coupling

MATTHIJS VERMEULEN - Symphony No. 2 "Prélude à la Nouvelle journée"; Symphony No. 6 "Les Minutes heureuses"; Symphony No. 7 "Dithyrambes pour les temps à venir"


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