JOHAN SVENDSEN: Norwegian Rhapsodies Nos. 1-4; Romeo og Juliet, Op. 18, Zorahayda, Op. 11 – South Jutland Symphony Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset – Naxos 8.570322 64:55 ***:
As a composer, Johan Svendsen found success early. His very attractive Octet, the product of his student years, is far from a student work and brought him his first well-deserved acclaim. His two symphonies, which have receded into the shadows cast by earlier (Berwald) and later Scandinavian composers (Sibelius, Nielsen, et al.), were compelling enough to convince an appreciative Edvard Grieg he should leave symphonic composition to those more gifted at working in large-scale forms. However, as conductor of the Music Society in his native Christiana and later as conductor of the Royal Opera in Copenhagen, Svendsen found his true calling. The thirty years he dedicated to conducting saw fewer and fewer compositions coming from his pen.
Among his best-known orchestral compositions—although you won’t run into them too often either in the concert hall or on recordings—are the four Norwegian Rhapsodies. Inspired by Lizst’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, they’re appealing works, with good melodies (many Norwegian folk melodies taken from a collection by Ludvig Lindeman) and effective orchestration. All of them are well proportioned and, like many of Liszt’s Rhapsodies, they work themselves up into a spirited lather at the finish line. Yet none of them is ultimately as memorable as similar works by Svendsen’s compatriot Grieg. In fact, the First Norwegian Rhapsody has the misfortune of sharing a melody with Grieg’s Norwegian Dances. As soon as you hear that tune, you start making comparisons, and not in Svendsen’s favor. The same is true to some extent of the Second Rhapsody, which comes into competition with Grieg’s Lyric Suite. But Svendsen’s effort shows increased confidence and more pesante high spiritedness. This is my favorite among the four Rhapsodies. Incidentally, fans of Lalo will recognize a theme that Svendsen’s Fourth Rhapsody shares with the Frenchman’s Rapsodie Norvegienne. I prefer the Lalo, which builds to a spirited finish with a quirky Latinate swagger.
The other works on this CD are from Svendsen’s second or third drawer, it seems to me. I think Romeo og Juliet wouldn’t be especially commanding even if you had never heard Tchaikovsky’s Shakespearean fantasy. The slightly later Zorahayda, based on a tale by Washington Irving, of all people, tells of the love of a Moorish princess for a Christian knight. It has a slightly exotic perfumed atmosphere in keeping with the mise-en-scène, but Svendsen barely breaks a musical sweat over Irving’s story.
I wish I could be more enthusiastic about these pieces, but for me Svendsen’s best work lies in the aforementioned symphonies and chamber music. The performances, though, are dedicated and sympathetic, while Naxos provides a good atmospheric recording. So if the program appeals, be assured that all involved in this project give Svendsen their best effort.
– Lee Passarella