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"18th-Century Flemish Harpsichord Music"

Ewald Demeyere, harpsichord

rec: March 28 - 31, 2011, Antwerp, Museum Vleeshuis
Challenge Classics - CC72528 (© 2011) (74'20")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

anon: Air 3te toni allegro [1]; Allegro [1]; Andante [1]; Arieta un poco Allegro [1]; Glockenspiel allegro [1]; Le luttin allegro [1]; Legrement [1]; Ioannes DE BOECK (1697-1775)?: Sonata II (menuet) [2]; Sonata V (allegro) [2]; Suitte Pour le Clavecin ou L'Orgue, op. 1 (allegro; siciliano andante); Natalis VANDER BORCHT (1729-1785): Suite VI (gratioso con variatione) [6]; Josse BOUTMY (1697-1779): 6e Suite (vivace; menuet I & II; andante - vivement; air gracieusement) [5]; Charles-Joseph VAN HELMONT (1715-1790): 2e Suite (La Lisette) [3]; Dieudonné RAICK (1703-1764): Suite V [4]; Ferdinand STAES (1748-1809): Sonata II [7]

Sources: [1] anon, Deel eener verzameling van muziekstukken voor clavecimbel piano of orgel, [no date]; [2] Ioannes De Boeck, Six Suittes pour le Clavi-Cembalo ou l'Orgue, op. 2, 1735; [3] Charles-Joseph Van Helmont, Pièces de clavecin, op. 1, 1737; [4] Dieudonné Raick, Six Suites de Clavecin, op. 1, 1745?; [5] Josse Boutmy, Troisième Livre de Pièces de Clavecin, c1750; [6] Natalis Vander Borcht, Six Suites pour le Clavecin, op. 2, 1750; [7] Ferdinand Staes, Trois Sonates pour le Clavecin ou Forte Piano avec accompagnement d'un violon, op. 4, 1777

On a disc with a subject like this one may expect to hear a considerable number of pieces which are hardly known or even completely unknown. That is certainly the case here: only Josse Boutmy and Dieudonné Raick are not completely unknown quanties as far as music for harpsichord is concerned. From Charles-Joseph van Helmont some sacred compositions have been recorded and released by the Belgian label Eufoda. The most prominent composer from Flanders in the first half of the 18th century was Joseph Hector Fiocco (1703-1741), whose keyboard works have been recorded by Ton Koopman (Astrée, 1978) and Ewald Demeyere (Accent, 2007). The latter now presents a survey of keyboard works by some of his compatriots and contemporaries.

There was a time that Flanders was the birthplace of some of the greatest composers of their time. I am referring here, of course, to the 15th and 16th centuries, when representatives of the so-called Franco-Flemish school dominated the whole of Europe. Their influence lasted well unto the time that the dominance of the polyphony was broken and a new concertante style emerged in Italy. Since then the music scene in Flanders was in decline. It was mostly music from elsewhere which was performed. Music by home-grown composers were largely under French or Italian influence. One of the most important masters was Henry Du Mont, but he worked mainly in Paris. Names which are not totally unfamiliar are Nicolas Hotman, Nicolaes a Kempis, Philippus van Wichel and especially Carolus Hacquart. It is telling that the latter worked most of his life in Amsterdam.

During the 18th century an improvement in the economic situation led to a rise in the level of music-making. In the field of religious music several composers were active whose works are being rediscovered, like the above-mentioned Van Helmont and Fiocco, but also Bréhy and De Croes. There was also much activity in the reign of theatrical music which shows a strong French influence. In the entry on Belgium in New Grove it is stated that "[associated] with the flowering of harpsichord building, there was in the first half of the 18th century a golden age of harpsichord music in the southern Netherlands." Some of the composers of keyboard music have already been mentioned. But if we read the liner-notes by Ewald Demeyere in the booklet of this recording one has to come to the conclusion that the words "golden age" are a little exaggerated. Demeyere only wanted to select pieces which were of good quality. Apparently that task wasn't very easy. In several cases he concludes that the general level of the harpsichord books by Flemish composers which have survived, either in print or in manuscript, is not very impressive. In a number of cases he therefore has only recorded some movements from a suite or a sonata, because other movements were not good enough, in his opinion.

Take Ioannes De Boeck, for instance. He is only known as "F.I. De Boeck", under which name the Amsterdam printer Gerhard Fredrik Witvogel published two volumes of harpsichord pieces. Thanks to recent research it is likely that this name belongs to Friar Ioannes De Boeck, who was organist of the Antwerp Friary from 1726 to 1735 and later worked as a priest in Maastricht. Demeyere writes: "Despite Witvogel's fame as a publisher, the overall quality of these works is rather low, and, moreover, De Boeck did not succeed in writing a convincing musical argument in all the movements of a suite/sonata". There are some pieces of good level, though, and Demeyere put three of them together to a sonata, and also recorded the allegro from the 5th Sonata which he considers De Boeck's best piece. Another victim, as it were, of Demeyere's critical eye is Natalis Vander Borcht, who was a harpsichordist, organist and carillon player at St Gertrude's Church in Louvain. "Besides mediocre ornamentation, the harmonic imperfections and clumsinesses are the biggest weaknesses in his writing." Only one piece from his pen could find favour in Demeyere's eyes: the gratioso con variatione from the Suite VI.

Even in the case of a much more renowned master as Josse Boutmy one movement from the 6e Suite which Demeyere considers the best of the Troisième Livre is omitted "because it is, due to its (too?) long sequences, of lower quality compared to the other movements of the suite". In this suite French and Italian elements appear, and this mixture is a feature of most keyboard music from Flanders. That is also the case in the work of Dieudonné Raick, who worked as an organist in Louvain, Ghent and Antwerp.

The latest composer in the programme is Ferdinand Staes, who was active as an organist in Brussels and in this capacity was once heard by Charles Burney who characterised his play as "masterly". His extant works are mainly pieces for keyboard with accompaniment of instruments. As was common at that time - for instance in the works of Johann Schobert - such parts could be left out, and that is how Demeyere plays the Sonata II from his opus 4, comprising two movements. The seven anonymous pieces are from a manuscript which is preserved in the library of the Antwerp Conservatory. It is called (translated): "Volume of a collection of pieces of music for harpsichord, piano or organ". The pieces are very different in character. The Legrement, for instance, sounds like a piece by Domenico Scarlatti. The Glockenspiel imitates the carillon, and is played here with the 4' stop of the harpsichord. Some other pieces are close to the style of Claude-Bénigne Balbastre. There are even reminiscences of the early classical style.

With this disc Ewald Demeyere hasn't only presented a programme which is historically interesting, but also musically enthralling. It could well be thanks to his critical assessment of extant music that there are no dull moments here. On the other hand, there is always something unsatisfying when an interpreter filters the available material. One could argue that the assessment of music's quality should be left to the listener. That said, one can hardly expect an interpreter to play music he doesn't like, for whatever reasons.

The liner-notes are illuminating, and Demeyere deserves praise for his honest assessment of the repertoire and for giving account of his choices. His playing is of the highest order, and he uses the famous Dulcken harpsichord of 1747 which is preserved in the Museum Vleeshuis in Antwerp. Its gorgeous sound has been brilliantly captured by the recording engineer.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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Ewald Demeyere

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