Naxos and Norway – these “Ns”
are two of my favourite things. Having got that off my chest,
in my day job I would now be considered biased and excluded from
the review process. Here (I hope), it is acceptable to express
personal prejudices and, if anyone is convinced, fair enough.
So now you know that I approached this disc with very positive
feelings. I assure you that I will mention any disappointments.
There were none relating to the programme, performances or recording.
I have just a couple of small gripes about the booklet even though,
as is usual on Naxos, annotation is more generous than on many
full price issues. The essay is by the conductor, Bjarte Engerset
and, although interesting and authoritative, it is not always
easy to follow in respect of temporal matters (e.g. “written
after the war” is ambiguous for a composer born in 1897).
Furthermore, it is not invariably obvious whether you are listening
to a complete work or an extract.
The first Naxos disc of Norwegian classical favourites
featuring the same artists was reviewed favourably by both John
Phillips and Jonathan Woolf. (review)
There is also an alternative compilation on BIS from the Stavanger
Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eivind Aadland (link).
I haven’t heard any of these but would guess that, if you
are unfamiliar with Norwegian music beyond the better-known compositions
of Grieg, the first Naxos disc would be the best place to start.
I probably passed it by because it begins with some music from
Peer Gynt (a problem of duplication). So does the second disc
but in this case it was not composed by Grieg.
Harald Sæverud’s music for Peer Gynt
was written for a new production in 1948 and the three pieces
presented here are extracts from a much larger work (facts not
in the booklet but obtained by “googling” which took
me to – guess what? - a MusicWeb review, the link is below).
First comes the Devil’s Five-Hop, a rhythmic diabolical
romp that even I can tell is in quintuple time. Mixed Company
is a parody of Peer Gynt’s travels containing some quotations
from well-known tunes from around the world (e.g. the Marseillaise).
You could enjoy yourself by playing this to an unsuspecting friend,
who probably won’t have a clue what it is. Whilst the extracts
from Peer Gynt presented here are mostly fun, Sæverud’s
serious side is represented later on with the brooding Ballad
of the Revolt. Indeed the objective of the disc seems to be to
move you on from traditional Norwegian music, much of which was
inspired by folk-song to the more progressive composers of the
20th century, of whom Sæverud was probably the most important.
Sæverud said of his own music that it “grew out of
the Norwegian soil and landscape – not from folk music”.
Before getting very far along this road we pass
by three highlights of Geirr Tveitt’s Hundred Hardanger
Tunes, most notably Hardanger Ale. Suites 1, 2, 4 and 5 from this
work are available (in different recordings) on two other excellent
Naxos discs (see reviews linked below). Prior to the Sæverud
ballad there are several short but attractive pieces by little
known composers, all of which are rewarding and tend to be pastoral
in nature (although Sommerfeldt’s Little Overture is quite
boisterous). The climax of the disc and, for me, the greatest
work here is The Churchyard by the Sea, a deeply felt elegy by
Fartein Valen, written in 1933. Valen is a composer I had heard
of but not heard before and his music seems to have a reputation
for being “difficult”, presumably because it is both
atonal and polyphonic. On this evidence, it is approachable as
well as highly original. The disc concludes on a lighter note
with three extracts from Halvorsen’s Scenes from Norwegian
The Iceland Symphony Orchestra plays really well
and Bjarte Engeset lives up to the high reputation he is gaining
from various records on this label. The recording, made in the
Reykjavik Concert Hall, is splendid.
In addition to this disc and its predecessor,
Naxos have also put out a worthwhile disc of Norwegian Violin
Favourites (8.554497) which makes for very amiable listening.
So, where next for this series? There must be suitable material
for a third “Norwegian classical favourites” and I
would certainly not complain. But my hope is that the implied
possibility of this disc, i.e. of getting people interested in
the orchestral music of composers such as Valen (who wrote four
symphonies and a violin concerto) and Sæverud (nine symphonies
and various concertos), will come to fruition in their catalogue.
Finally, if I may digress, for a brief moment,
to my enthusiasm for Norway, a wonderful country to visit. The
only drawback is the high cost of almost everything. But cost
shouldn’t put you off buying this disc; the price is about
the same as a beer in Oslo. For that you get a wonderful musical
proxy for a trip to Norway, the effects of which will substantially
outlast any beer (except perhaps Hardanger Ale!). This is a disc
Review of Peer Gynt and other music by Sæverud:
Reviews of Naxos Tveitt discs of Hundred Hardanger tunes: