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Scandinavian Serenade
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Holberg Suite, op.40
1. Praeludium [2:40]
2. Sarabande [4:30]
3. Gavotte [3:23]
4. Air [6:03]
5. Rigaudon [3:41]
Elegiac Melodies, op.34
6. Hjerterar [3:26]
7. Våren [5:28]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
8. Valse Triste, op.44 [4:34]

Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Little Suite, op.1
9. Praeludium [2:55]
10. Intermezzo [4:52]
11. Finale [6:04]
Dag WIRÉN (1905-1983)
Serenade, op.11
12. Praeludium [3:00]
13. Andante espressivo [3:38]
14. Scherzo [2:50]
15. Marcia [6:04]
Jean SIBELIUS
Rakastava, op.14

16. The Lover [3:58]
17. The path of the lover [2:04]
18. Good night, my beloved, farewell [4:45]
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, UK, May 1970 (Holberg Suite), May 1977 (tracks 6-18)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 8196 [73:22]


These recordings may be old – the Holberg Suite dates back thirty-six years – but they come from a golden period in the illustrious history of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, in collaboration with Sir Neville Marriner, who had formed the orchestra in 1959.  The playing is out of the very top drawer, and the recorded sound is representative of Decca’s best in the 1970s – more than acceptable even by the highest current standards. 

There is something very special about Scandinavian string music, though it is very difficult to say exactly what it is.  It’s something to do, I’m sure, with the clean, brilliant sound of strings, uncompromised by the heavier tones of brass and woodwind.  Cool, maybe, yet full of beauty and passion when required. 

The programme of this disc is most elegantly put together, contrasting the Neo-Classical busy-ness of the Grieg Holberg Suite with the more angular Dag Wirén Serenade from the 1930s, then finishing with Sibelius’ Rakastava, one of his less familiar pieces, yet an undoubted miniature masterpiece.  On earlier tracks, we have Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies op.34, Hjerterar - The Wounded Heart -  and Våren - The Last Spring - and I have never heard the latter sound so heart-breakingly beautiful as in this rapt performance.  Sibelius’ famous Valse Triste which follows is equally fine, full of dark intensity.  The pianissimo of the strings here is a special joy, as is the lovely woodwind playing in the central episode - the only time these instruments are heard on the disc.

Tracks 9-11 bring the Nielsen Little Suite, his op.1, yet an impressively assured and striking piece.  I hadn’t heard this for years, and had forgotten just how good it is.  You’d have difficulty in identifying the composer if you knew only Nielsen’s mature works, yet each movement is highly characterised, showing the influence of Dvořák and Grieg; compare the charming central Intermezzo, for example, with Grieg’s ‘Anitra’s Dance’ from Peer Gynt.  The backward glance at the first movement’s mournful main theme at the beginning of the Finale is a ‘cyclic’ touch inherited from Dvořák, which then leads, via some lovely key-changes, to the exuberant concluding Allegro. 

The Serenade op.11 by the Swedish composer Dag Wirén will ever retain a place in the affections of, shall we say, listeners ‘of a certain age’ (knocking on a bit), because of the use of its march as the theme music to the ‘Monitor’ programmes about the arts in the 1950s and 1960s, masterminded by the great Huw Weldon.  But it is an excellent piece throughout, thoroughly representative of a composer who is highly regarded in Scandinavia yet barely known in this country.  It is beautifully written for the strings, and has much subtle interplay of motifs between the four movements.  And of course that final Marcia is incredibly catchy – I defy you not to be whistling or humming the tune all day after hearing it a couple of times. 

The best word for Sibelius’s suite Rakastava op.14 is haunting.  The music originated as settings of folk-poetry for male voice choir, then the composer made this version for strings and light percussion – the best-known – in 1911, and it has three exquisite and highly typical movements.  The first, ‘The lover’, is passionate yet hesitant, while the second, ‘The path of the lover’, has that suppressed excitement that we find again in the finale to the 5th Symphony. The third, ‘Good night, my beloved, farewell’, harks wistfully back to the first movement, and opens out into an elegiac coda of great beauty.  As elsewhere, the playing of the Academy strings is quite superb – not only in ensemble, but where solos are taken, everything is of the very highest musicianship and sensitivity. 

In its way, this is a very special recording, impossible to recommend too strongly.  Snap it up and enjoy! 

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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