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Andriessen: Writing To Vermeer

Release Date: 04/11/2006 
Label:  Nonesuch   Catalog #: 79887   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Louis Andriessen
Performer:  Susan BickleySusan NaruckiMichel Van der AaBrenda van Duijkeren,   ... 
Conductor:  Reinbert De Leeuw
Orchestra/Ensemble:  ASKO EnsembleSchoenberg Ensemble
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 42 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

ANDRIESSEN Writing to Vermeer ? Reinbert de Leeuw, cond; Susan Naruki ( Catharina Bolnes ); Susan Bickley ( Maria Thins ); Barbara Hannigan ( Saskia de Vries ); Michael van der Aa (electronic music); De Kickers Ch; Schoenberg Ens; ASKO Ens ? NONESUCH 79887 (2 CDs: 101:48 & )

Read more /> I?ve been noting for the last few years a chasm between European and American opera?the former tends to be more static, ?symbolic,? and abstract in nature, while the latter is highly dramatic, and seems intent on aping the norms of film, a kind of live movie with its own hyper-ventilated soundtrack. Both obviously leave a lot to be desired in this generic form, but of course at their highest level each can create excitement and revelation. I?m glad to report that while Louis Andriessen?s Writing to Vermeer (1997?98) falls more into the European mold, it?s inventive, exciting, and passionate, and I love it.

Writing to Vermeer is a collaboration with librettist Peter Greenaway, known to many as a director of a series of near-fetishistic films that explore the intersection of violence, perversity, and numerology. In this case, the overall product is far more humane and moving. The concept of the work is that three women in the household of painter Johannes Vermeer?his wife Catharina, his mother-in-law Maria, and (fictional) model Saskia?all write letters to him during a two-week period when he travels to The Hague. Vermeer himself never appears or sings; the entire cast is female (except for two boy sopranos in the children?s choir). The female domestic triangle reveals connections and tensions in their competition for the artist (the work bears a strong resemblance to a similar conceit in the book and movie, The Girl with the Pearl Earring ). But Andriessen and Greenaway have more in mind than domestic melodrama. They contrast the intimate activities of the plot with larger social/historical issues, including contemporary assassinations, wars, and floods. The work ultimately suggests how the familial life is a determined, but ultimately vain, attempt to stave off the ravages of large-scale forces and events, made dramatically clear in the conclusion, when Holland is literally flooded as a measure to defeat the invading French.

Andriessen (b. 1939) is a composer for whom I?ve had mixed feelings for some time, though I?m ashamed to admit it may be partly because of aesthetic chauvinism: his brand of motoric European minimalism has sounded a little second-hand in comparison to its American counterpart. But in this work I?m convinced and impressed by his range and depth. The composer admits a strong debt to Cage in the work?s form and technique?its six scenes use the durational structure (expanded) of the latter?s Six Melodies for violin and piano (we hear a brief quote at the outset of the opera), and the sequence of musical materials in subsections of the third and fourth scenes are determined by chance operations. And artificial formal constraints come into play big time with the two acts being loose palindromes of each other. Another composer very much in the background is Stravinsky?none too surprising, as Andriessen has written one of the best monographs on the composer. Not only are there compellingly propulsive passages reminiscent of ?classic? Stravinsky, but also pointillistic ones more in the mold of his late serial works. Several early-music works are quoted or evoked, most notably the Sweelinck song, Mein junges Leben hat ein End. And finally, large sections of the piece have a grand lyrical sweep driven by postminimalist rhythms and harmonies that will remind listeners of John Adams. The truly marvelous thing is that all these influences, while evident and not unduly masked, work to reinforce one another and create a seamless whole. It?s emotionally rich and varied, but it doesn?t sound like pastiche.

Yes, not much happens on the home-front side of the plot. Vermeer is gone at the outset, Saskia also goes on a trip (to ultimately find a fiancé), the three women write letters to Vermeer, eventually Saskia and Johannes come home. But what makes the opera succeed is: (1) the background of the historical turbulence, which is effectively rendered by the electronic interventions of Michael van der Aa; and (2) the sheer sweep and energy of the music, which creates its own momentum to carry the listener through any dramatic situation. Andriessen, like a couple of his contemporaries?Denmark?s Poul Ruders and the UK?s Judith Weir?is able to straddle the paradigm I presented at the beginning. These composers reconcile the dramatic and the conceptual, and the key is their mastery of the music itself as a dramatic force.

The performers are superb all around. For fairness, it should be noted that the children?s vocal quartet and the female chorus of six singers are coached by Jan Maarten Koeman and Winifred Maczewski respectively. The booklet is stylishly produced, and includes photos, essay, libretto, and an interview with the composer. If I have any criticism, it is that Andriessen?s vocal writing at times has strange prosody, can set certain syllables in awkward tessituras, and that the balance between voices and ensemble can obscure the text unduly. I suspect these issues come largely from English being the composer?s second language (though like all good Dutch, he?s fluent in it). But it?s not a fatal flaw. This is a marvelous opera, far more varied, rich, and lyrical than many more hard-edged works of Andriessen?s that have established his reputation. Unqualifiedly recommended.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

1. Writing to Vermeer by Louis Andriessen
Performer:  Susan Bickley (Mezzo Soprano), Susan Narucki (Soprano), Michel Van der Aa (Electronics),
Brenda van Duijkeren (Voice), Wendy van Epen (Voice), Jan Kistemaker (Voice),
Jacob Schroevers (Voice), Melanie Greve (Soprano), Barbara Hannigan (Soprano),
Marije van Stralen (Soprano), Tomoko Makuuchi (Soprano), Violet Serena Noorduyn (Soprano),
Marjolein Niels (Mezzo Soprano), Martine Straesser (Alto)
Conductor:  Reinbert De Leeuw
Orchestra/Ensemble:  ASKO Ensemble,  Schoenberg Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: Netherlands (Holland 
Venue:  Muziekcentrum Vredenburg, Utrecht 
Length: 101 Minutes 47 Secs. 
Language: English 
Notes: The opera's ten electronic music interludes were composed by Michel van der Aa.
Muziekcentrum Vredenburg, Utrecht (06/29/2004 - 06/30/2004)
Composition written: Netherlands (Holland) (1997 - 1998). 

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