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Daniel Sternefeld - Starry Stuff from Flanders' Fields

available at AmazonD.Sternefeld, Mater Dolorosa Interludes, Symphony No.1, Elegy et al.,
A.Tamayo / Brussels Philharmonic

The idea—or rather: fact—of hidden treasures among Flemish composers has not been lost on me. Until now, that’s because of the marvelous efforts of the Belgian label Phaedra which has brought over sixty volumes in their “From Flanders’ Fields” series. Joseph Ryelandt (Piano Quintet and String Quartet), and Jef van Hoof (Symphony No.3, No.2), for example, have proven to be two absolute high points of the last few years.

Klara, apparently a sub-label of Brussels-based Et’Cetera, has its own series, “Flemish Connection”—and previous installments have been on several critics' 'Best-of' lists. I’d like to say that I was not surprised that the material thereon—by a certain Daniel Sternefeld (1905-1986)—is worth hearing, but cynic that I am, I was. The only review of Sternefeld I could find in the archive of the Fanfare Magazine, for example, was one of him as a conductor, which was his day job before—and again after—the war, when his Jewish roots no longer meant that he was barred from holding any official positions in Belgium.

During his time of forced (public) inactivity during World War II, he composed his first (of two) symphonies which he got to conduct after the liberation of Belgium on Christmas Eve of 1944. That marked the erstwhile end of his composing career and a focus on conducting until his retirement from the NIR/INR (now RTBF) Symphony Orchestra. The eloquent and refreshingly succinct liner notes of Guido Defever tell us that Sternefeld had writers’ block after the second movement of his first Symphony was finished—only to be solved by the suggestion of a musicologist-friend to use an old Dutch beggar’s song which features the words: “If you but help yourselves, then God will help you free yourselves from the tyrant’s bonds and fetters, o fearful Netherlands”. Perfect for a war symphony by someone in legitimate fear of being deported… and so develops the simple tune from humble beginnings all the way into a defiant, bold chorale in that last, third movement. Before the work gets there, though, it’s a busy, wild, and doom-flavored ride leading to plaintive cor anglais motifs that conjure calm at the edge of resignation. The Brussels Philharmonic under Arturo Tamayo—here as elsewhere—performs not just flawlessly but with eminent energy, zest, and lyricism.

Elegy, Paraphrase on Kol Nidrei stems from 1931; a piano concertino of sorts—eleven minutes short and with deeply moving, heavy-hearted, calmly stirring opening that evokes pictures as if it were music to a film unshown. Ambitious, successful stuff for a 25-year old ex-flutist who ‘only’ ever took private composition lessons. Variations on Frère Jacques is a charming (“brilliant and playful” says Defever”) ditty thrown in by Sternefeld in 1954 that features brass and percussion and possible audience participation (not on this disc, though!). Actually, in light of the concert-opening fanfares that are composed these days (I’m thinking in particular of Joan Tower’s tedious Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No.1—cherish the wit once, tire thereof ever after), this may actually well deserve to be called brilliant.

Even with the Symphony at center stage, the main work on this disc might be the Four Interludes and Finale from his 1935 opera Mater Dolorosa. Based on one of those grim pre-Disney Christian Andersen fairy tales, its five de-facto movements are about: “Anxiety and pain on the Child’s death”, “The Mother’s nocturnal agonies of doubt”, “Dance of the nymphs drying tears”, “Tense vision of war – obsessive military march”, and “Mood of resignation and submission”. Just what you’ll read your child when it thinks that not getting the candy at the supermarket checkout line is a tragic affair.

The turbulent entry (anxiety) into the first, two-minute Interlude belies that lyrical turn (pain?) it takes at the very end. The resolving phrase, probably a conscious allusion, reminds me very specifically of a famous romantic piece by one of the great-greats… it’s at the tip of my tongue, but my brain refuses to spit out which one. The lullaby “A child is born” is interwoven throughout, gorgeous slow passages prepares for the “Visions of War” of Shostakovich-like tumult, with added organ and hints of Zemlinskyesque sweetness. One didn’t need too much vision, in 1935, to see war coming; more vision was probably needed to foresee the calm aftermath, even if it runs under the rubric of “resignation and submission” with Sternefeld. In any case, it’s an absolutely tremendous piece and another jewel for me to have discovered among those many little-known Flemish composers.

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