Jan Van Gilse: Symphony No. 3 / Porcelijn, Netherlands Symphony Orchestra

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GILSE Symphony No. 3, “Elevation” David Porcelijn, cond; Aile Asszonyi (sop); Netherlands SO CPO 777518 (63:02 Text and Translation)

This is only my second encounter with the music of Jan van Gilse (1881–1944). His First and Second symphonies, recorded by these same forces and reviewed by James H. North in Fanfare 32:2, didn’t leave me with a lasting impression of the composer’s musical profile, so in requesting this release of his Third Symphony, I thought I’d give Gilse another shot.

Though he was Dutch by birth, Gilse was the product of German training, one of his teachers having been Humperdinck. Upon completing his studies, he secured conducting appointments in Bremen and Munich, but after the outbreak of World War I, he returned to the Netherlands, where he led the Utrecht Municipal Orchestra from 1917 to 1922. Apparently, his tenure was a stormy one in which a vitriolic dispute between Gilse and composer and critic Willem Pijper eventually led to Gilse’s resignation and the penning of a 350,000-word autobiography in which he heaped scorn on the heads of all those who had made his life in Utrecht miserable.

But Gilse was not all bitterness and payback. During the Second World War, he and his two sons joined the resistance movement against the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. His life, however, ended in tragedy, as he saw both sons killed by German troops and then succumbed himself, probably to pneumonia, soon after, not living long enough to see the war’s end.

Gilse completed his Third Symphony in 1907 while still in Bremen, including in its third and fifth movements a part for soprano soloist. Unfortunately, the English translation of John Smit’s album note by Susan Marie Praeder gives no explanation for the work’s title, “Elevation” ( Erhebung in its German publication), or its connection, if any, to the score’s verses.

The third-movement text appears to be a free verse poem by Gilse himself, dedicated in gratitude to Dina Mollinger-Hooijer, wife of the director of the Netherlands National Insurance Company. The love poem, which makes no attempt to hide its erotically charged imagery, leads one to read between the lines as to the reason for Gilse’s gratitude.

The fifth-movement text draws three stanzas from the equally suggestive erotic poetry of Solomon’s Song of Songs , though the particular verses Gilse selects don’t contain some of the text’s more explicit references.

If Gilse’s Second Symphony hints at Strauss, Elgar, and perhaps a touch of Mahler, as North noted in his review of that earlier work, the opening slow movement to his Third Symphony is almost pure Wagner in Tristan und Isolde mode; one waits for the face of the famous Liebestod to emerge at any moment from the granite slab Gilse is chiseling.

The second movement tosses us right into the middle of Strauss’s Don Juan . There are moments of resemblance so close they border on plagiarism.

For the third movement, we’re back to Wagner. Without benefit of a score, I can’t be sure, but on one of the soprano’s climactic notes at 3:43, Gilse’s underlying harmony sounds darn close to Wagner’s augmented ninth “Tristan” chord.

Improbable as it may seem, the fourth movement opens with what sounds like a pre-echo of Ravel’s La Valse , and then we’re back to part Richard Strauss and part parody of the waltzing Strausses.

The fifth and final movement, at almost 22 minutes in length, dwarfs all the others. Here’s the Elgar North mentioned that’s been missing up to this point. What a gorgeous ceremonial opening. Though it lacks the same striding gait, the music recalls to no small degree the magnificent processional that leads off Elgar’s First Symphony. Patience is advised, for the soprano doesn’t make her first entrance until the movement is more than half over. When she finally does, it’s Isolde’s soliloquy leading up to the final Liebestod.

Clearly, Gilse’s score is largely derivative and, as North put it, “pure high Romanticism.” But that’s exactly what should appeal about it to those who love to laze in luxuriant orchestral scores. Gilse may not have had an original idea in his head for this symphony—I can’t speak to any of his later works or to his opera, Thijl , reputedly his crowning achievement—but he demonstrates a sure hand when it comes to the craft of orchestration and of weaving a colorful, vibrant musical tapestry. Gilse’s Third Symphony displays the talent of a composer who could write wonderfully effective music, even if it was someone else’s.

As usual, CPO’s recording is up to the highest industry standards, and David Porcelijn, who has been delivering the goods for the label’s Röntgen project, here leads the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra in what seems to be a perfectly paced performance. Estonian soprano Aile Asszonyi, who has a high-lying, lighter-than-usual, but exceptionally focused voice, beams right in on the notes with laser-like precision. Gilse’s writing, which exploits the voice’s upper range, seems ideally suited to Asszonyi, and she repays the composer with beautifully sung performances in the two vocal movements.

If you love the music of Wagner and Strauss with a serving of Elgar on the side, you are guaranteed to enjoy this CD.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Release Date: May 29, 2012

  • Catalog Number: 777518-2

  • UPC: 761203751822

  • Label: CPO

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Jan van Gilse

  • Conductor: David Porcelijn

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Netherlands Symphony Orchestra