GERHARD SCHJELDERUP: Brand (Symphonic Drama); Symphony No. 2 “To Norway” – Trondheim Symphony Orchestra / Eivind Aadland – CPO

by | Mar 11, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

GERHARD SCHJELDERUP: Brand (Symphonic Drama); Symphony No. 2 “To Norway” – Trondheim Symphony Orchestra / Eivind Aadland – CPO 777 348-2 73:11 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Gerhard Schjelderup (1859-1933) belonged to a small group of Norwegian composers who turned their sights toward an international musical esthetic rather than the purely nationalistic one to which Grieg and Halvorsen subscribed. For Schjelderup, who studied at the Paris Conservatoire but lived most of his adult life in Germany, the music dramas of Wagner supplied the basis of his aesthetic and his musical language. However, under the influence of Ibsen and the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, Schjelderup turned his attention away from the mythological landscape of Wagnerian opera to the inner landscape of the human mind. Schjelderup’s operas reflect the impact of late-nineteenth century psychological literature, an influence that informs the long tone poem or symphonic drama, Brand.

Brand is based on an 1865 tragedy by Ibsen that traces the downfall of an idealistic priest who believes that the will of man can and must be shaped for the good of society. Brand’s is an Old Testament faith summed up in his motto “All or nothing.” He feels that modern religion is leading man astray, and he fights for an uncompromising moral life that puts him at odds not only with the Church but with most of those around him. In Ibsen’s play, the hero dies a weird but dramatically appropriate death, crushed by an avalanche caused by his antagonist. But Schjelderup simplifies Ibsen’s complex drama, concentrating on Brand’s love for the innocent Agnes, whom he converts to his hard doctrine of self-denial and sacrifice for a spiritual ideal. At the end of Schjelderup’s work, Brand climbs the “highest peak, where the divinity reveals himself. ‘He who has beheld Jehovah must die!’” Schjelderup writes in the program text he attached to the work. Like the Brand of Ibsen’s play, Schjelderup’s hero rejects the New Testament God of love to seek and find his Old Testament taskmaster of a God.

Schjelderup paints his musical drama on a big emotional canvas, with lots of Wagnerian orchestral sound and fury. The storm music that begins and ends the piece represents not only a natural storm but the inner turmoil that motivates Brand. That’s set against the tender lyrical passages that represent Agnes and his love for her. Despite the length and complexity of Schjelderup’s tone poem, it really fits neatly into the pattern familiar from Tchaikovsky’s tone poems: orchestral turmoil representing the chief drama of the piece leavened by the love music that Tchaikovsky made his signature gesture. With all that storm music, Brand is reminiscent of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, and if you like that piece—and maybe even if you don’t—you should like Schjelderup’s expertly orchestrated, bigger-than-life musical portrait.

Interestingly, despite Schjelderup’s avowed aim to explore psychological drama in his works, critics continued to think of the composer in terms of nature music, which most listeners think of in connection with Scandinavian composers such as Grieg or Sibelius. Maybe it’s the exception that proves the rule, but Symphony No. 2, Schjelderup’s tribute to his native country, is extended musical nature painting. The first movement portrays the wild North Sea, an inescapable fact of Norwegian life. The nominal scherzo of the piece brings relief in its portrayal of spring, and the bucolic strain continues in the slow movement titled Fjellvidden—”The Mountain Plateau.” In the finale, we’re back in Brand country, at least in terms of locale. Schjelderup titled this movement “Up to the Highest Peaks!” and it has a striving, driving, upward trajectory that brings the symphony to an ecstatic close. Along the way, there are some quieter more inward passages, lightly scored, that remind me a bit of Sibelius. But for the most part this symphony is brasher, less subtle, and certainly less melodically memorable than Sibelius, and while I can again appreciate Schjelderup’s fine orchestration, I’m not as impressed as I am with Brand. I’ll return to the symphony less often than to the symphonic drama.

Certainly, conductor Eivind Aadland and the Trondheim Symphony give this music their all. The Trondheim produces a full rich sound to match this heady late-Romantic stuff, but they also imbue the quieter and more reflective music with delicate color. It’s doubtful that a rival version of this music will come along anytime soon, and in any event I can’t imagine that the current version will be surpassed. CPO’s big, bold, highly detailed recording would be hard to beat as well.

— Lee Passarella

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