Ludvig IRGENS-JENSEN (1894-1969)
Symphony in D minor (original version) (1942) [44:00]
Air (1959) [2:42]
Passacaglia (1928) [20:05]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset
rec. The Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, England, 22-23 May 2009
NAXOS 8.572312 [66:47]
This fine disc embodies the fickle nature of musical fame and fate. This is music of depth yet instant appeal. For any collector who responds to large-scale orchestral scores written in a freely tonal manner this is powerfully compelling listening. The liner tells us that the two main works received many performances following their respective premieres as well as being praised by such musical luminaries as Toscanini and Stravinsky. That said, I cannot imagine there are many collectors reading this review outside of Norway who can claim much if any real knowledge of Irgens-Jensen's work. I for one am certain that I have not heard a note before this disc. So congratulations and praise to Naxos for another winner of a disc.  
The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra prove themselves yet again to be astonishingly versatile playing music which by definition must be unfamiliar with real conviction and abundant virtuosic skill. No doubt in this they are helped greatly by the fact that the conductor Bjarte Engeset is an expert on this composer's music - this is evident from the fact that this world premiere recording of the Symphony in D minor is in the performing edition prepared by Engeset.
Engineer Phil Rowlands has managed to tame the resonance of the recording venue - The Lighthouse, Poole - which in the past I have found clouds some of the detail of the BSO recordings there. This disc strikes a fine balance between detail and warmth. The orchestral sound-field is convincingly spread left to right with good depth too.
For a symphony written in 1942 Irgens-Jensen deploys a very traditional orchestra - little in his use of the orchestra (instrumentally rather than harmonically) - would surprise Brahms. Indeed, as Engeset points out in his very interesting liner, it was to Germanic rather than Nordic models that the composer turned. Throughout the disc it is abstract musical forms such as the chorale, passacaglia or fugue that are explored. Yet the fascination to my ear is the subtle fusion of something unmistakeably 'northern' in the use of harmony and clarity of orchestration that results in works of considerable beauty. Stenhammar's Symphony No.2 springs to mind as sharing a similar sound-world. Although conceived in a three movement version it became best known after the war in a two movement form with the finale removed and the end of the second movement rewritten. Engeset's achievement is to have edited the amputated finale and restored it to its rightful position. Frustratingly for him he did not discover the original ending to the second movement in time for this recording so unfortunately - how ungrateful I am for writing this - what we have recorded is a rather unauthentic version since it represents neither Irgens-Jensen’s first nor indeed his final thoughts. Engeset believes the original finale was excised because its musical message was simply too pessimistic for a post-war audience determined to move forward leaving the dark days of the war behind. Given that the work was conceived during the Nazi occupation of Norway with the enormous impact that had on Norwegian society perhaps it would be foolish to expect it to be anything but bleak.
Engeset finds parallels with other famous symphonies in D minor ranging from Bruckner to Beethoven and Mahler - he hears Symphony No.3 but - wrong key I know - No.6's apocalyptic final march sprang to my mind. I know what he means and I am sure other listeners might add their own 'echoes' - fleetingly I heard some Shostakovich (in the weary tread of the finale's opening) and Vaughan Williams (the central movement echoes Vaughan-Williams' own 'war' symphony No.5 with its gently pastoral ecstasy) but this is a game of rapidly diminishing returns. Listen to this work in its own considerable right and I feel you do begin to get a sense of the man behind the music. Apparently he was quite a polymath - a poet and considerable artist; what I take most from this is an intensely humanitarian philosophy couched in essentially abstract musical form. Engeset quotes a poem written by the composer at the same time as the symphony the implication being that it contains a programme for the musical work. Again I think this is a potential red-herring, at best reflecting a common mood rather a detailed narrative. The heart of the work surely lies in the repeated use of chorale-like passacaglia figures under-pinning the busier musical detail that swirls around and above it. I hear this as the human spirit that endures despite any given circumstance as if the rigour of working out these 'traditional' musical forms transcends the preceding struggle. Certainly the climax of the second movement has a sense of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler in its final triumphal moments. The very opening of the work gives you an idea of the contradictory forces at work throughout the piece - an open-air nature poem in the high modal string writing with ominous threatening figures from low wind and brass presaging darker times ahead. Indeed throughout this first movement - the longest of the three - there is a storm-tossed energy that is compellingly sustained and played here with bravura virtuosity. What I admire greatly in this music is the heartfelt individual sincerity of it. The influences are there for one to tick off a list as you see fit and certainly in purely musical terms this is not going to break any new boundaries. Yet at the same time this is not in the slightest bit derivative or superficial.
Separating the two substantial works on the disc is a little two minute miniature from 1959 entitled Air. This is an orchestral transcription of one of the songs from the song-cycle of 1920, Japanese Spring. Air is a version of the fourth song dedicated to 'a friend'. As a contrast to the muscular emotions of the two large works it gives the listener a valuable insight into the range of Irgens-Jensen's expression. The 1928 Passacaglia is an altogether more bravura and ultimately more optimistic work. This is yet another piece that came into being as a result of the Columbia record company's competition to mark the centenary of Schubert's death. It came second in the Nordic section to the ultimate winner of the whole competition - Atterberg's Symphony No.6. Again the opening feels ill at ease and questing - the introduction of the passacaglia motif in the trombones - Brahmsian echoes here - seems to promise something more beneficent although initially this simply has the effect of increasing the vigour of the opening pessimistic music. It is only once the lower strings convert the passacaglia material into a moving bass figure that the clouds part and piece hauls itself slowly into sunnier climes. Once again I get a similar impression to that in the symphony; as though the composer finds release and valediction through 'hard work' as represented by the rigorous working out of traditional musical forms. The triple fugue that bursts out after the twelfth variation [track 5 11:30] symbolises this exactly. Again the orchestration is far from revolutionary by any measuring stick - it is hard to imagine the composer ever being considered a 'modernist' but again I am struck how unlike other composers he sounds. Perhaps here I heard moments reminiscent of Reger but I suspect this was more to do with a common fascination in the use of variation and fugue. Irgens-Jensen's music is flecked with an unmistakeable Nordic tone and a greater range of humanity than I hear in Reger. The closing pages of this work capture this perfectly; the fugue builds to a majestic final chorale statement of the passacaglia theme. This then dissolves into a pastoral paradise - all passion spent - where harp and solo violin perform a courtly dance leaving the work to finish with surprising abruptness on an unresolved dominant chord. Irgens-Jensen did much the same at the end of the reconstructed finale of the symphony and in both instances there is a sense of unfinished business with the listener left hanging in a strange emotional limbo.
The discovery of many little known Scandinavian composers has been one of my collecting highlights in recent years mainly down to the endeavours of the BIS and CPO labels but this disc from Naxos proves to be another major discovery on that pleasurable voyage. Quite how much other music there is to record is unclear although his cantata/dramatic symphony (depending where you source your information!) Homecoming would seem an obvious starting place given its stature in Norway. I see there is a major biography due to be published in November 2011 by Boydell & Brewer. An excellent disc that reflects great credit on all concerned.
Nick Barnard
Congratulations and praise to Naxos for another winner of a disc.