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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Cypres
WORKS: Freyhir
PERFORMER: Véronique Solhosse (soprano), Christine Solhosse (mezzo-soprano), Marc Laho (tenor), Patrick Delcour (baritone); Namur Symphonic Choir, Brussels Choral Society, Liège PO/Jean-Pierre Haeck
Émile Mathieu (1844-1932), French-born of Belgian parents, pursued an active composing career, ending as principal of Ghent Conservatoire, but though regarded in his lifetime as a leading Belgian composer his fame did not outlive him. Freyhir (1883), described as a ‘poème lyrique et symphonique’ for soloists, chorus and orchestra – essentially a dramatic cantata with symphonic elements – is patently an ambitious conception, itself only the central panel of a triptych of works celebrating the Ardennes. Mathieu’s own libretto links the Forest of Freyhir in that region (near his birthplace) with the pagan goddess Freya and (quite unhistorically) imagines it as the last resting-place of the Gallic hero Vercingetorix. The chieftain’s struggle to save the region from the Romans parallels the threat of devastation that it faced, in the 1880s, from deforestation and flood. In fact in all its ardent seriousness Freyhir could be claimed as the first ecological oratorio. Deeply (inevitably?) influenced by Wagner, with shades of Franck and d’Indy, this is an often attractive and occasionally quite imaginative piece which shows Mathieu fully equal to the challenge of handling his large forces (the penultimate movement depicting the flood is drawn with great gusto). If it ultimately lacks much memorability, the invention is never mediocre and the performance carries real conviction. No neglected genius ripe for rediscovery, then – but an interesting and enjoyable sidelight on Romantic nature-music nonetheless. Calum MacDonald