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Johan SVENDSEN (1840-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 4 (1866)
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 15 (1876)
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Marriss Jansons
Rec. August 1987, Konserthaus, Oslo
EMI CLASSICS 585069-2 [68.00]

Alongside Edvard Grieg, Johann Svendsen was the most important Norwegian composer of his generation, as well as a talented conductor and violinist. Like Grieg he studied at Leipzig, but as his career developed he travelled further afield. At the end of the 1860s he was in Paris, before moving on Weimar, where he worked with Franz Liszt. He was also on friendly terms with Wagner, who invited him to join the orchestra at the inaugural concert for his new operatic project at Bayreuth. During the mid-1870s Svendsen returned home to Norway, conducting and teaching in Christiania (Oslo). The major and final part of his career was spent at Copenhagen, where from 1883 he was conductor of the Court Opera.

These two symphonies confirm that as a composer Svendsen was most accomplished, and he can fairly be described as 'the first Norwegian symphonist'. Grieg certainly admired his gifts, declaring 'Svendsen has precisely all that which I don't have: mastery of the orchestra and its large classical forms'. These achievements resulted from an eclectic taste, including a close study of Berlioz's Treatise on Orchestration, combined with an awareness of masters of nineteenth century music, such as Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann.

Of these two pieces the Symphony No. 2 is a good deal more successful than its predecessor, despite the enthusiasm of the insert notes. There are some interesting moments, but the symphony evolves without ever developing a compelling sweep. Jansons and the fine Oslo Orchestra are the right performers in this repertoire, to be sure, but even they cannot hide the lack of true symphonic tension in this early work.

The Symphony No. 2 is a different matter, and its opening phase generates a terrific sweep of powerfully imaginative, genuinely symphonic material. The scoring too is masterly, and the rich-toned strings of the Oslo Philharmonic do Svendsen proud. If the slow movement is more fitfully involving, there are some fine opportunities, including once again the excellence of the strings in the eloquent central section.

In the third movement Intermezzo it is the woodwind players who are heard to best advantage. The outer sections sound for all the world like Grieg, before the sweeping lines of the strings reveal Svendsen's own identity. Both symphonies are unusual in having slow introductions to their finales. In No. 2 the sustained string lines release an attractive Allegro con fuoco which drives through to a compelling conclusion, aided here by the committed conducting of Marriss Jansons and the fine playing of his orchestra.

While the music on offer lacks the searing intensity of genius, it is well organised and, in the Second Symphony particularly, most rewarding to the listener. The recorded sound is warm and truthful and the packaging efficient, although quite why EMI decided to give nearly half the booklet space to self-advertising is open to question. More about the music (the notes are thin) would be a better advertisement for the product than a series of glossy pictures of other issues in the series.

Terry Barfoot

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