AUGUST DE BOECK: Piano Concerto; Suite from “Francesca”; Prelude to “Théroigne de Méricourt” — Jozef de Beenhouwer, piano/ Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra (Ostrava)/  Ivo Venkov — Phaedra 92071, 74:57 (Distr. by Allegro) ****:
August de Boeck was one of the last of the romantic school of composers. Belgian, born in 1865, he died in 1937.  He wrote five operas, symphonic works and other less ambitious pieces.
This disc is number 71 in the Phaedra series ‘In Flanders Fields,’ a rich collection of Belgian classical music. The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1926-1929) was composed for the Hans Piano which was a dual manual creation commissioned by Pierre Hans, an engineer and amateur pianist with abnormally fat fingers who wanted to continue to play the piano.
With the legendary French piano and harpsichord firm of Pleyel, they developed the two manual concert grand with the upper manual tuned a half tone higher than the lower manual. This arrangement allowed the playing of chromatic passages and enabled the pianist to repeat complete chords at high speed. [?…Ed.] With a unique sound, the instrument became popular with composers such as de Boeck, but the cost of making these Hans pianos was excessive, plus with World War II these conditions simply killed the Hans piano off.
A skillfull musician, Jozef de Beenhouwer, the pianist in this recording, arranged the Hans piano part for regular concert grand. The music of de Boeck, at least sampled here, is not at the same level as the great French composers Vincent d’Indy and Ernest Chausson. However, it is expressive and strongly reminiscent of d’Indy’s and Chausson’s evocative and rapturous compositions. Unfortunately, de Boeck did not have their melodic gifts.
The long suite from the opera Francesca (1930-1920) also sounds derivative, with Richard Wagner, seemingly the primary influence, plus a bit of César Franck for good measure. It is well orchestrated, as are the piano concerto and the prelude. There are some original-sounding sections, but not often enough, if you are looking for some great new discovery. Regardless, the music grows on you after repeated hearings.
Conductor Ivo Venkov, originally from Bulgaria, has the measure of this music and keeps things moving along, even when it gets slow and quiet. The Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra (Ostrava) plays like they are really on top of these works.
If you want some really good de Boeck, look for his earlier Symphony in G which is close to Borodin (the Second Symphony) and/or Glazunov. It is quite exciting and thrilling. It is (was?) available in a rip-roaring performance conducted by Karl-Anton Rickenbacher on Discover DICD 920126.
Phaedra has a neat booklet with notes in Flemish, English, French and German, plus photos, illustrations and bios of the artists. The sound – a little up close for my taste – is nonetheless better than most recordings. The recording is an all-Czech production. Recommended for lovers of this period and the type of music. Too bad that we don’t have an least a sample of what the Hans piano sounded like for comparison.
—Zan Furtwangler