Bernard van Dieren’s Chinese Symphony [Lyrita]

4 of 5 stars

Bernard van Dieren
Symphony No.1, Op.6 (Chinese)
Elegie für Orchester mit Violoncello principale
Introit to Topers’ Tropes

Rebecca Evans (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (contralto), Nathan Vale (tenor), Morgan Pearse (baritone) & David Soar (bass)

Raphael Wallfisch (cello)

BBC National Chorus of Wales

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
William Boughton

Recorded 20-22 April 2016 at BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: February 2017
Duration: 69 minutes



Time was when the music of Bernard van Dieren (1887-1936) was more discussed than heard, then hardly discussed at all, yet there is no better way into his output than the ‘Chinese’ Symphony. Those wanting emotional overkill will be let down, yet the feeling is of a highly personal conception.

Dutch-born Van Dieren resided in London from 1909, but travelled widely prior to the First World War; attending the 1912 premieres of both Busoni’s Die Brautwahl and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. He seems not to have attended the Munich debut of Das Lied von der Erde a year before, though he must have been aware of Hans Bethge’s anthology Die Chinesische Flöte prior to the London premiere of the Mahler in 1913 as he had already embarked on his own settings.

Completed in 1914, a performance of ‘Chinese’ Symphony did not occur until March 1935 – by which time Van Dieren had little more than a year to live. A second hearing the next April served a memorial function; since when there has been a BBC broadcast in 1973 and a Holland Festival performance a decade on. Reaction to it has ranged from admiration to bemusement.

Despite Van Dieren’s advocacy of Busoni and Schoenberg, the present piece (designated Symphony, Opus 6; calling it “Symphony No.1” is not incorrect, but a later Symphony in Three Dance Movements is unfinished) evokes neither. Nor is Mahler in evidence; the most likely precursors are Alphons Diepenbrock’s symphonic song Die Nacht and Delius’s Songs of Sunset – premiered respectively in June and October 1911. The ‘Chinese’ Symphony draws upon seven poets, yet Bethge’s interventionist translations afford authorial unity which is abetted by Van Dieren’s musical ethos. Subtly and never wantonly chromatic in harmonic idiom, it inhabits an expressive domain that is not fatalistic but searching for all its restraint. One means of achieving this is through the presence of five singers – among whom only the baritone has a sizable role, before they unite in the Finale. This, along with a chorus heard in only three of the eight movements, suggests a lack of concern with practicalities; rather, Van Dieren uses his forces to reinforce the gradual momentum running through the work.

Among the movements, the third features soprano and tenor singing separate texts that deftly emphasises the ‘Lover’s separated’ of the title, while the seventh sets ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ with a ruminative yearning that is far removed from Mahler’s rhetorical irony. The fifth movement is an orchestral ‘Interludio’ which crystallises this music’s introspection, and the eighth is a ‘Quintetto e Coro’ whose luminous dissonances open-out emotional vistas before heading to its close with a gesture of wistful benediction amply befitting ‘Man’s fate’.

This Lyrita release is newly recorded, a considerable undertaking both logistically and commercially, and does ample justice to the main work. There are minor intonational flaws with the soloists (happily not with Morgan Pearse’s authoritative baritone), and while clarity of balance between chorus and orchestra is a little variable, neither the accuracy of the singing nor conviction of the playing sells this music short at any point.

Of the shorter pieces, Elegie (c.1910) is a concertante work whose Delian cello-writing is well suited to Raphael Wallfisch; a sinuous thread over a rondo-like design whose sombre eloquence takes on increasing unease. Introit to Topers’ Tropes (1921) – an intended prelude to an unrealised setting of Rabelais’s Les Propos des Beveurs – looks to Busoni’s scurrilous Arlecchino) as a starting-point for its eventful interplay of insouciance and swagger that brings about the uproarious close.

William Boughton secures committed playing from BBCNOW – occasional failings of ensemble in the latter piece a reminder of how exacting this music is. The recorded sound is detailed and spacious, with Alastair Chisholm’s booklet notes as insightful as expected given his life-long advocacy. Much of Van Dieren’s music (five of his six string quartets and the opera The Tailor) awaits recording, but this Lyrita disc blazes an auspicious trail.

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