JOHAN SVENDSEN – Symphonic Works – Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2; Norwegian Artists’ Carnival; Romeo and Juliet; Carnival in Paris; Zorahayda; Festival Polonaise; Andante funebre; 4 Norwegian Rhapsodies, others – Latvian Nat. Sym. Orch./ Terje Mikkelsen – CPO (3)

by | Jul 13, 2008 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

JOHAN SVENDSEN – Symphonic Works – Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2; Norwegian Artists’ Carnival; Romeo and Juliet; Carnival in Paris; Zorahayda; Festival Polonaise; Andante funebre; Symphonic Prelude to Bjornson’s play “Sigurd Slembe;” “Last year I was tending the goats;” Norwegian Rhapsodies Nos. 1, 2, 3 & 4 – Latvian National Symphony Orchestra/ Terje Mikkelsen – CPO boxed set (3 CDs) 68:36, 63:33. 59:53 ***** [Dist. by Naxos]:

Johan Svendsen was a very popular composer in his native Norway and in Denmark during his lifetime; he lived until 1911.  However, this popularity failed to translate to international fame or to today’s concert halls. That’s unfortunate, because he was a master at orchestration, wrote many interesting works for large ensembles and orchestra, and in a very accessible, tonal and quite original style. He frequently made use of Norwegian folk music, but his compositional style often has a broad appeal without sounding particularly Nordic, Germanic or English. Svendsen was at one time a close friend of Wagner but that didn’t seem to rub off on his music a bit.

Svendsen studied violin early on with Mendelssohn’s favorite violinist, but he had a nervous defect in the finger of his gripping hand and switched to the study of composition with Carl Reinecke. Later he concentrated on conducting in addition to composition.

A fascinating domestic incident occurred in the sometime-chaotic relationship of Svendsen and his wife.  In 1883, in a fit of jealousy over a supposed gift a female admirer had sent to Svendsen, his wife threw into the burning fireplace the only manuscript of his just-completed Third Symphony! The incident was used by playwright Ibsen in his drama Hedda Gabler. Svendsen never composed anything of much import the remainder of his life. (They separated the following year, by the way.)

Svendsen’s early First Symphony is of conventional design, with three of its four movements in sonata form. But it is filled with music of strong Norwegian folk character which gives it a nationalistic feeling. Grieg complemented the work on exactly those qualities. The Second Symphony was composed at the same time as the Romeo and Juliet orchestral fantasy also in this set.  Svendsen had a habit of composing works in pairs such as this.  Norwegian dance rhythms and folk melodies are again the basis of this symphony – a very listenable and enjoyable work that should be part of concert repertory today.  It illustrates a quality of Svendsen’s music that I find most attractive – it’s overall optimistic attitudes. You won’t find many Mahleresque doleurs in Svendsen, expect for the short funeral work ending the second CD in this set.

Tone poems capturing the moods of carnivals seemed to be a favorite of Svensen’s, and the second CD presents two of these plus a quite festive-sounding Polonaise. There is little explanation of the nature of the drama Sigurd Slembe, for which Svendsen wrote incidental music, but the 11-minute suite does have a variety of dramatic moments to it.  The four Norsk Rapsodis are quite similar to lighter folk-idiom works by Swedish and Danish composers.  The example of Franz Liszt seems to be in evidence here, except that the folk culture sampled is Nordic instead of Hungarian. The Rapsodi No. 1 features a very familiar Nordic folk tune which I believe is heard in another similar work by the Swedish composer Alfven.

These recordings were originally made in Riga, Latvia in 1997 and 98 and boast excellent sonics as well as an informative note booklet.

 – John Sunier


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