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Johan SVENDSEN (1840-1911)
Symphony No.1 in D major Op.4
Symphony No.2 in Bb major Op.15
Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Ari Rasilainen
Recorded at NRK Broadcasting Hall, Oslo, Norway in June 1996
TELDEC APEX 0927 40621 2 [71.10]
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I was recently guest-conducting in Germany, Sondershausen near to Hannover to be precise, the opening concert of a festival of the music of Bruch, who conducted there for three years between 1867 and 1870. Chatting in the break during one of the rehearsals with some members of the orchestra we were hard put to name significant composers of symphonies from about 1856 to 1876, say from the death of Schumann to the appearance of Brahms’ first. There appears to be, as far as this particular musical form is concerned, a Black Hole for about twenty years. Bruch’s first two are there (1868 and 1870), Bruckner is beginning (but unknown), Gounod penned a couple of rather lightweight examples in the mid- and late 1850s, Sullivan’s (1866) is not to be dismissed but neither is he remembered for it (perhaps W S Gilbert should have written words to its finale). There’s Gade, Reinecke, Raff, Saint-Saëns (only his second), Rubinstein, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov, though the latter tends to titles such as ‘Antar’ thus hovering on the symphonic poem, which (especially in the case of Liszt's Dante and Faust) cannot be included. George Bernard Shaw raved about Hermann Goetz’s symphony which just makes it (1875), but fine though it is, it doesn’t compare with the established masters on either side of the Black Hole.

The point is, I think, made, but the Norwegian Johan Svendsen turns out to be a bit of a dark horse. Much of his orchestral writing is confined to rather short, inconsequential orchestral rhapsodies, some other miscellaneous works averaging five to twelve minutes, a violin concerto and a cello concerto, and the two symphonies featured here, the first a student work dating from 1867, the second from 1876, steam-rollered by Brahms’ first in the same year. Johan Svendsen was conductor of the Oslo Musical Society (1872-77, 1880-83), and of the Royal Theatre Orchestra in Copenhagen (1883-1908). Acknowledged as one of the leading conductors of the day, he did much to enliven the musical life of the two capitals in which he worked. His music is always colourful, tuneful in the more reflective slow movements, at its best in sparkling scherzos (the highlight of both symphonies) in which the woodwind chatter along. They are both rather prone to counterpoint in the outer movements (somehow one always gets the feeling that a fugue is threateningly just around the corner) so producing a somewhat stodgy result. His ability to orchestrate is unquestioned, but he does not advance the cause of the symphony, and especially not its finale problem.

In the 1970s the Norwegian Cultural Fund released six LPs of his complete orchestral output under the NKF label, Naxos have five CDs in their current catalogue (the two symphonies recorded by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Bjarte Engeset and given a high rating in the Penguin Guide), but this one by the Norwegian Radio is a commandingly attractive performance, particularly in the rustic, witty scherzettos of both symphonies in the style of the traditional Norwegian dance called the Halling, with its bustling energetic playing by the excellent woodwind section. An attractive buy.

Christopher Fifield

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