Most people quite frankly are not aware of many Norwegian
composers. And the one everyone does know is ‘well kent’ for just a
handful of works - the Piano Concerto in A minor and the Peer
Gynt Suite. Pianists will know a number of the Lyric Pieces.
Now, these pieces are popular with justification; they are masterpieces
in their genre. The Concerto is probably one of the key works
of this type of all time – even if it has to our ears become hackneyed.
It has long been a favourite of mine since I watched a childhood sweetheart
playing extracts from it in the school music room.
Now it is reasonable to assume that there are a number
of other Norwegian composers who deserve notice. There are many names
all jockeying for a position in the musical hierarchy. This CD offers
a chance to meet a number of them in various guises. All the pieces
on this disc are superbly crafted however the musical content varies
from the humorous to the profound, from the frankly banal to the quite
complex. Yet as showcase for introducing Norwegian music it is difficult
to know if it impresses; if it reveals the true genius of Norwegian
composers in the best light. Any such CD should challenge people to
explore the composers in the compilation in more depth. I have my doubts
that this is the case with a number of the names in this recording -
at least on first listening.
We get off to a good start, however. The Entry of
the Boyars by Johan Halvorsen is one of those pieces that
amazes. It is definitely a pot-boiler. It is full of circus imagery
with incessant drums giving it a military band feel. Furthermore, there
is a ‘night ride’ character to much of this exciting music. Listening
to this obviously popular piece we feel that we are in the presence
of an extremely competent composer and orchestrator. I find the instrumental
colour quite wonderful. It is full of big tunes, Straussian gestures
and almost Sullivan-esque humour. Yet, it is unfair to try to allocate
a style based on this single piece. It would make a fine encore at any
concert. The other piece by Halvorsen is his Fanitullen (Wild Dance).
This was part of the incidental music for a play called Fossegrimen
by Sigurd Eldegard. It is really a wedding dance replete with images
of a wedding that goes slightly wrong. Drunkenness, jealousy and fighting
all are mirrored in this almost Ivesian piece of fun.
Johan Svendsen to my mind is one of the finest
of Norwegian masters. Writing in the late nineteenth century he was
amongst other things a symphonist. In fact his symphonies demand attention
as excellent examples of the late romantic imagination. Yet this CD
chooses to give a relatively slight piece of this composer. The Norwegian
Carnival of Artists is a well-written piece - but in many ways it
is an ephemeral work written for a meeting of the Society of Artists
in 1874. The composer is reputed to have tried to marry musical images
of the ‘south’ and the ‘north.’ A Neapolitan melody serves to promote
sunnier climes whilst a folk dance passes muster for the chillier places.
Once again I am reminded of the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan; full of
gorgeous singable tunes and well orchestrated passages that show what
an underrated composer we have in Svendsen. Yet perhaps we deserve one
of his more profound works?
The Norwegian Master, Grieg, is represented
by three relatively slight pieces. The first is a transcription of his
fine song - Last Spring which has an almost Elgarian feel to
much of its restrained writing. The composer is interpreting the words,
'Once again I have seen the winter give way to spring.' Perhaps it is
the final time that the poet will see the blossom? Certainly there is
a melancholy here that is very sad and even quite profound. Everyone
knows 'Morning Mood' which I confess to first hearing on a coffee
advert on the television in the 1970s. Of course it comes from the incidental
music to Peer Gynt. There is a strange story attached to this
music. To me it is almost English in its pastoral musical imagery. To
many Norwegians it may suggest cool mountain streams and the hill farms
and vistas of the mountains and fjords. However in the original play
the music was meant to portray the west coast of Africa! The last of
Edvard Grieg's pieces is a serviceable transcription of the Norwegian
I must confess to knowing no music by Nils Geirr
Tveitt. This is an omission that I intend to remedy as quickly as
possible. The four pieces given here are from the First Suite of
Folk Tunes from Hardanger. They have a magical quality like little
else that I have heard. I suppose the nearest thing I can compare them
to is Joseph Canteloube's settings of the Songs of the Auvergne.
Of course Tveitt does not use a voice. All his colour and interest is
carried by his superb orchestration. Excellent stuff.
The Rondo Amoroso is the most complex and profound
work on this CD. It is one of the pieces that really moved me. Written
by Harald Saeverud in 1941, it derives from a piano improvisation.
The composer was persuaded by his son to take the theme and make it
a little less sad. The Rondo form perhaps is less important than the
development of the melancholy theme – it never really becomes happy.
The same composer's Ballad of Revolt is the darkest piece on
this compilation and perhaps the most modern sounding. It was written
in 1943 at a time when the Germans had occupied the country. It was
Saeverud’s way of protesting at this loss of freedom; a piece that deserves
to be well known.
Towards the Sea is a transcription of song that
Edvard Fliflet Braein had composed as a young man. There is
to my ear a touch of the Dvořáks or Suks about this music. Yet
it is truly lovely and is not simply a repetitive playing over of a
tune. It is beautifully contrived for orchestra with lots of colour
– especially from the brass section. Gorgeous, if a touch sentimental,
is not too strong a word of praise.
I wonder who knows much about the life and works of
Eivind Groven? (see Neil Horner’s review of one of the Groven
discs. Ed.). I am not sure that many will recognise the name. Yet he
has done much to preserve Norwegian folk music. This overture is like
the curate’s egg. It was written to celebrate the opening of the new
city hall in Oslo in 1950. It is fun without much depth. It probably
deserves an occasional airing and it is good to have it here.
Ludwig Irgens-Jensen is another composer who
is little known outside the confines of Norway. Yet he was regarded
as a modernist in his younger days. The programme notes refer to his
Passacaglia as being his most popular work. Yet here we have
an extract from the incidental music to a play by Hans E. Kinck - Driftekaren.
Bols Song is a charming miniature very much in the Grieg style
rather than pushing the bounds of modernity. Nice though.
Bjarne Brustad is represented by an attractive
transcription of the folk tune - I went to bed so late. I cannot
fault the poise and balance of this lovely work. Once again we hear
the influence of Grieg. But this is hardly surprising, as the master
had used this tune in one of his own arrangements.
Military music is given its head in the last piece
on this CD. Johannes Hanssen was noted for performance and conducting
rather that composing. Yet in the March of the Valdre we have
an excellent example of a work that ought, according to the sleeve notes,
to take its place with the greatest marches of the standard repertoire.
It is perhaps a little optimistic. I would hardly wish to compare this
relatively light piece with the offerings of Wagner, Walton or even
Eric Coates. However it is fun and rounds off this retrospective in
a fitting manner. Good stuff.
The playing of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra is
second to none. It conveys a large amount of infectious sympathy for
these home grown works.
My review has now come full circle. When I first began
to listen to these works I was concerned that it was not an excellent
showcase for the much-neglected music of Norway. Yet having listened
to, and thoroughly enjoyed most of these miniatures I am converted.
I believe that this is a good introduction to those who may be put off
by some of these composers’ more imposing works. It could act as hors
d'oeuvres to a ‘main meal’ involving a deeper exploration of the delights
of these fine and interesting, if not towering composers.