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Hans Vonk 1942-2004 - The Final Sessions

Hans Vonk 1942-2004 - The Final Sessions

PentaTone Classics  PTC 5186045

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Brahms: Academic Festival Overture Op. 80, Rhapsody for Alto, Male Chorus and Orchestra Op. 53, Variations on a Theme by Haydn Op. 56a

Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra
Hans Vonk (conductor)

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Review by John Miller - January 18, 2008

Pentatone offer this volume as a premature termination of their survey of Dutch composer Hans Vonk's work. Perhaps he was best-known in Europe, but his career had international elements as well. His conducting style was deeply rooted in the central European traditions, but his personal credo was service to the composer and to music rather than service to his conductor's ego. It is astonishing to learn that these final sessions with his old orchestra were conducted from a wheel-chair, and with gestures limited by his disease. Clearly all the musicians were fully aware that his courage at the sessions in August 2003 probably meant the end of his conducting career, and possibly of his life. They responded magnificently.

Brahms was one of his great loves and he certainly could create a real Brahmsian sound, but with much more clarity than managed by many other conductors. Brahms has gained a reputation as an indifferent orchestrator, as had Schumann before him. But both of them were used to very different bands compared to our modern symphony orchestras; smaller, with gut strings as well as quieter and more characterful woodwind and brass. Vonk, as demonstrated on this disc, was one of the few modern conductors to balance his orchestras to allow the wonderful details of Brahms' scores to come through. Here he was also aided by the first-class, truthful and beautifully balanced DSD 5.0 sound for which Pentatone is famed. I have never heard such rich inner detail in all of these works. The Netherlands Radio Symphony play magnificently for him.

Strength of purpose, certainty in the passage of tension to relaxation in the structure of the composition, and deeply felt lyricism are the features of these interpretations. Justly so, as Brahms himself was the perfect blender of classicism with romanticism. There are many passages in the Academic Festival Overture and St Anthony Variations which could almost have been written by Beethoven. Both works are given excellent performances which remain in one's mind long after the disc stops spinning. They are, of course, essential companions to the four symphonies. Both end in triumph and joy and are uplifting indeed.

Brahms' setting of several verses from Goethe's 'Winter Journey through the Hartz Mountains' became his three-part Alto Rhapsody. It has long been a favourite of mine, as it moves from the contralto's loneliness of unrequited love through lamenting to receiving the sweet balm of consolation. While she may not be Christa Ludwig in her prime, Yvonne Naef here gives a beautifully dark-toned and deeply emotional account. She is splendidly supported by the men of the Netherlands Radio Choir, whose Chief Conductor is the almost legendary Simon Halsey. I have never heard the inner parts of the chorus so clearly depicted, thanks both to Vonk and Pentatone.

I have only one gripe about this issue: the absence of the vital texts for the Alto Rhapsody from the insert. I suspect that Vonk himself might be with me in administering this rebuke, especially as the space was taken up with material about himself!

While it may appear that this disc is a memorial worth only one playing, it is instead a set of beautiful readings of three essential Brahms works, fully in the Central European tradition. Moreover, it is not marmorial, but a real 'feel-good' and life-enhancing disc. What better memorial could a conductor have?

Copyright © 2008 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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