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Andriessen: Writing to Vermeer

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Andriessen
LABELS: Nonesuch
ALBUM TITLE: Andriessen
WORKS: Writing to Vermeer
PERFORMER: Susan Narucki, Barbara Hannigan, Susan Bickley; Netherlands Opera, Schönberg Ensemble & Asko Ensembles/Reinbert de Leeuw
CATALOGUE NO: 7559 79887-2
As first staged in Amsterdam by Netherlands Opera in 1999, Louis Andriessen and Peter Greenaway’s third collaboration was a dazzling fusion of music and visual imagery. As much a virtuoso display of theatrical technology and film techniques as a triumph of musical and dramatic vision, Writing to Vermeer was an obvious candidate for release as a DVD. But it appears now as an audio recording, made in the studio when the original production was revived in 2004; though one misses the impact of the visuals, the musical power and subtlety of Andriessen’s score are vividly communicated.


Greenaway’s typically intricate libretto consists of a series of letters that he imagines were written in 1672 to the painter Vermeer, when he left his home in Delft to travel to The Hague. The letters are sent by the three most important women

in his life – his wife Catharina, mother-in-law Maria Thins, and his most important model, Saskia De Vries. They detail cosy domestic trivia, but are written against the backdrop of far less tranquil events in Holland, and the interaction of these public issues with the private world of the Vermeer household gives the opera its dynamic and its startling climax, when the Dutch open the dykes to flood the countryside as a defence against a French invasion.


Andriessen’s score has its own internal symmetries and conceits – there are references to folk songs and to works by Sweelinck and John Cage. But its most striking characteristics are the sheer beauty of the sound world in which strings are far more prominent than in any other of his works, and the always lucid, elegant word setting, while orchestral interludes and electronic interjections introduce the violence and stridency of a country preparing for war. On disc, conducted with perfect tact and accuracy by Reinbert de Leeuw with Susan Narucki, Susan Bickley and Barbara Hannigan all outstanding as the letter-writing females, there is a natural balance between all these elements, and Writing to Vermeer seems an even more touching and memorable piece of music theatre now than it did at its premiere. Andrew Clements