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Johan Severin SVENDSEN (1840-1911)
String Quartet in A minor, Op. 1 (1865): Allegro; Andantino; Allegro scherzando; Finale Allegro assai con fuoco
String Quintet in C major, Op. 5 (1868)*: Andante Ė Allegro; Tema con Variazioni; Finale Ė Allegro
Oslo String Quartet: Geir Inge Lotsberg, violin; Per Kristian Skalstad, violin; Are Sandbakken, viola; Nystein Sonstad, cello
Henning Draggerud, viola *
Recorded Nystsiden kirke, Fredrikstad, February 2001
CPO 999858 [58:39]
String Quartet Comparison: Kontra Quartet/BIS

The Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen was disloyal to his wife and paid a hefty price. Svendsen was sent a bouquet of flowers and a love note from one of his female friends. Unfortunately for Svendsen, the flowers and note went winging their way to his wife. Now comes the musical part of the story. Svendsen, already having two symphonies under his belt, had just completed his third. Iím sure he wishes he had locked it away, but the sad fact is that he left in his desk drawer. Svendsenís wife collected all the pages and threw them in the red-hot fireplace. So long, Symphony No. 3!!

You might find this hard to believe, but Svendsen never really recovered from the burning incident. He cut down greatly on the time he spent on composing in the years ahead and never did come up with his 3rd Symphony, concentrating instead on his love of conducting. At any rate, Svendsen eventually became highly prized for his conducting skills and was even offered the positions of Chief Conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. Svendsen declined the job offers, a decision that certainly contributed to his relatively obscure current reputation.

Did Svendsenís traumatic event deprive us of one of the greatest composers ever to walk the Earth? His fellow Nowegian composer Edvard Grieg might cast a positive vote in that he withdrew his own Symphony upon hearing Svendenís Symphony No. 1 in D major. Of course, at least part of Griegís decision was based on his lack of confidence at the time in writing a large-scale work.

We can only speculate as to how Svendsen might have progressed as a composer if he had not turned to a full life of conducting. Still, the works he did create reveal a composer having expert structural abilities and a fine penchant for melodic development.

Svendsen composed his String Quartet in A minor in 1865 while he was on a scholarship in Leipzig; the work was premiered at the graduation concert in May of that year and was well received. Svendsenís String Quintet in C major also premiered at a graduation concert in 1868 when he was coming to the end of his Leipzig studies. Both works offer highly pleasant music of an upbeat nature, never veering toward the emotional depths of a typical Brahms chamber work.

One of the prime traits of these two chamber works is that Svendsenís lyricism sounds so natural and comfortable. The result is an entirely uplifting musical experience sure to boost oneís frame of mind. He also has a knack for delicious turning of phrases and attractive foot-tapping rhythms. I donít want to give the impression that Svendsen only delivers the softer side of life. There is effective tension and urgency in each movement, but Svendsenís tendency is always to get back to his comforting home base.

Most impressive is the Theme with Variations Movement of the String Quintet, as it is a compendium of the breadth of Svendsenís artistry. Consisting of a basic theme with six variations and a coda, each variation is unique and memorable. In this Movement, Svendsen assuredly displays all his compositional gifts including the essential elements of contrast. The 3rd Variation is a hushed and fragile gem with absolutely gorgeous melodies and phrasing; itís worth the price of the disc by itself.

The Olso String Quartet was formed in 1991 and has many recordings for Naxos and other record labels to its credit, including the complete Nielsen String Quartets. This splendid ensemble group has garnered much praise and plans future recordings of the music of Hugo Wolf, Jean Sibelius, and Alban Berg.

I first became familiar with the Oslo String Quartet when I was working on a review project of the recordings of Nielsenís Four String Quartets. As it happens, The Kontra Quartet also had a set on the market from BIS. To make a long story short, I considered the Oslo groupís set one of the best on disc and the Kontra at the bottom of the pile. There were two major problems with the Kontra set: over-romanticized and cultured playing and a cavernous sound stage that gave the impression that at least eight instruments were on display. In contrast, the Oslo String Quartet was working from a natural acoustic, and it fully realized the late-romantic nature and rustic appeal of Nielsenís music.

Nothing but time has changed since those Nielsen reviews of a few years ago. The Kontra Quartet still occupies a slick and ĎCarlsbad Cavernsí soundstage and plays with its customary romantic inclinations, while the Oslo String Quartet continues to perform idiomatically and incisively. To the best of my knowledge, only the Kontra and Oslo Quartets have available recordings of the String Quartet, and the Oslo has the field to itself in the String Quintet. I trust that Svendsen would agree that this ensemble group is an excellent champion of his chamber music.

In conclusion, these two Svendsen string chamber works are wonderful works that I recommend strongly. Also strongly recommended are the performances by the excellent Oslo String Quartet. If youíre open to the byways represented by the Scandinavian portrayal of the Romantic era, do treat yourself to this throroughly enjoyable recording.

Don Satz

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