This Simax release is a salutary reminder of how dangerously
parochial record collecting, or indeed, musical appreciation can be.
I freely confess that until the editor sent this disc to me for review
I had never heard of Ludvig Irgens-Jensen, still less heard any of his
music. How many of us who live outside Scandinavia, specialist collectors
apart, can say that we have heard much Norwegian music (Grieg’s excepted)?
Whilst I don’t think that this disc reveals a neglected master it does
contain music which deserves to be much better known.
Ludvig Irgens-Jensen was self-taught as a composer
and although he did study the piano, languages and literature were his
chosen fields of study at Oslo University. In his liner notes Arvid
O. Vollsnes tells us that to learn composition Irgens-Jensen "fervently
studied all he could get his hands on in the way of scores and musical
literature." I should love to know whose scores he studied.
His first published music was a collection of 38 songs
which appeared in 1920 and which, we are told, were selected by the
composer from "several hundred" that he had composed by then!
Though the songs were received well by performers and audiences Vollsnes
says that some critics thought that many of them were "too modern
and radical" and that in his later compositions Irgens-Jensen adopted
a simpler style which was more tonal. Although we are listening to his
compositions now with the benefit of musical hindsight I don’t think
anyone would call those included here radical; certainly they are not
Although Mr. Vollsnes writes well about each of the
works included on the disc the one thing that I found lacking in his
notes was a clear narrative of the composer’s life and career. I assume
that Irgens-Jensen made his living as a full-time composer (he was given
a State Honorary Grant for life by the Norwegian Parliament in 1945
and I assume this was some kind of pension). It is a pity that a more
full biographical picture was not given since this composer will be
unknown to many listeners. His major works included a large-scale patriotic
cantata, Heimferd (1930) and a Symphony in D flat (1943). The
cantata, which was very enthusiastically received when it appeared,
has also been recorded by Simax (PSC 3109).
The Passacaglia, though originally conceived
for voice and organ, was Irgens-Jensen’s second work for orchestra.
It was a prize-winner in the 1928 Schubert centennial competition, being
warmly commended by Carl Nielsen, and was first performed the following
year. Though I did not have a score to follow I agree with Arvid Vollsnes
that the structure is fairly clear. There is an Introduction during
which we hear for the first time a chorale which initially appears on
the brass ((track 10, 2’30"). This recurs at several key points
in the work. There follows Passacaglia I, which is interrupted by a
fugue begun very determinedly by the strings (11’09") before Passacaglia
II (14’21") which leads into the Coda. Here the chorale reaches
a grandiose (but not overblown) apotheosis (17’08") before a tranquil
conclusion (18’06") in which all the thematic strands are drawn
together and the work is brought to a satisfying conclusion. At the
very end the theme of the passacaglia, in the composer’s words, is heard
"up in high, luminous spaces."
The Passacaglia makes a good impression. It is fluent
and approachable and struck me as a rather impressive piece of work.
In parts it reminded me rather of Reger. The thematic material, which
is all closely related, is interesting and the piece is well laid out
for the orchestra. The Bergen Philharmonic certainly makes a good case
for it, giving a committed and convincing performance.
The brief and restrained Pastorale religioso
was originally written as a choral song. In 1939 Irgens-Jensen arranged
it for string quartet for his father’s funeral (subsequently it was
heard at both his mother’s and his own obsequies). We hear it on this
occasion in an arrangement for small orchestra made during the War.
It is a sincere, dignified and rather lovely little piece which I much
Like the Passacaglia the Canto d’omaggio
was a prize winning piece. This time, according to Mr. Vollsnes, it
was the successful entry in a 1950 competition connected with the 900th
anniversary of the founding of the city of Oslo. The winning entry was
chosen to celebrate the opening of the new city hall. It is, in fact,
a set of eleven variations on a song which Irgens-Jensen had written
in the 1920s. Appropriately, the title of the original song had been
Our own town. The theme lends itself well to variation and is
lyrical and dignified. Even though the work is short and the variations
concise the composer worked to his own programme, illustrative of events
or themes in the development of Oslo. The programme is printed in the
notes and some of it can be identified reasonably easily just by listening
to the music. The piece is skilfully written and colourfully orchestrated.
It seemed to me to be a most attractive set of variations with a touch
of genuine nobility at the conclusion.
The major work in the collection is the song cycle
Japanischer Frühling. This is a set of nine songs, the texts
of which are Japanese poems by a variety of poets and penned between
the eighth and the eighteenth centuries. Interestingly, the translator,
Hans Bethge, also translated the Chinese poems used by Mahler in Das
Lied von der Erde. The songs were published, with piano accompaniment,
as Op. 2 in 1920 and revised orchestrated as late as 1957. Mr. Vollsnes
implies that the revision may have been quite extensive for he says
"we can sense the mature composer cutting and reworking the frisky
ideas of the young man. It had now become a music of reflection."
Not having heard the original version I can’t comment on the cutting
and reworking (did the composer withdraw the earlier version, I wonder?).
However, I certainly can agree that the cycle is "music of reflection."
The poems are mainly short and receive comparably succinct
settings (only three exceed three minutes duration in this reading).
The orchestration is bright and clear; Irgens-Jensen uses his palette
of colours delicately and imaginatively, I would say that anyone who
enjoys the lieder of Strauss or Mahler would respond to these songs
even if, in the last analysis, the thematic material is not as memorable
as theirs. I believe Irgens-Jensen is most successful in the slower
numbers. The second song, ‘Der Blütenzweig’ (‘A branch of blossoms’)
is a tender little piece. The fourth, ‘An Einen Freund’ (‘To a friend’),
scored for strings only, is the most extensive with an atmospheric orchestral
introduction prefacing a very expressive vocal line. The sixth song,
‘Betrachtung’ (‘Reflection’) is also highly atmospheric and the eighth,
‘Einsam’ (‘Lonely’) also expresses deep emotions. There are lighter
moments. The seventh song, ‘Leichtes spiel’ (‘An easy game’) is beguiling
and is closest in mood to the Mahler of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
The soloist, Ragnhild Heiland Sørensen, sings
her demanding part very well. The songs call for a wide vocal range.
She has a deep, full lower register and is secure in alt. Just
occasionally I had a little difficulty making out the words (the songs
are in German), but for the most part her diction is very good. She
receives sensitive support from Eivind Aadland and the Bergen players.
This is a most interesting song cycle. Regrettably, I suspect that opportunities
to hear it outside Scandinavia will be limited so I am grateful that
it is available in what appears to be a faithful as well as good rendition.
This, particularly, is music I shall want to hear again
Throughout the programme the playing of the Bergen
orchestra is of a very good standard indeed and Aadland sounds to be
fully inside the music and committed to it. Simax provide notes and
texts in German, Norwegian and English and pay the music the compliment
of a fine, detailed recording.
This is a most interesting collection of unfamiliar,
well-crafted music which will give pleasure to collectors with an enquiring
ear. I am glad to have made the acquaintance of Ludvig Irgens-Jensen’s
music and I happily recommend this CD.