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Niels Viggo BENTZON (1919-2000)
Music for Cello and Piano: Variations on The Volga Boatman op. 354 (1977); Sonata No 3 for cello and piano op. 268 (1971); Sonata for cello and piano op. 43 (1947)
Niels Ullner (cello); Rosalind Bevan (piano); Recorded at the Carl Nielsen Academy of Music, Copenhagen, February/August 2002
DA CAPO 8.226015 [60.31]


Probably one of the most prolific composers of all time, Niels Viggo Bentzon sports an amazing work-list that includes music of all types and for all occasions. Let me list a few. There are 22 symphonies, 15 piano concertos, 4 violin concertos, three for cello; many string quartets, trios and quintets and in all, not far off 600 opus numbered works. 

Da Capo has recorded several of his symphonies and some chamber music but he is, on the whole, poorly represented in the catalogue. Whether this disc will attract converts I am not sure. Da Capo have presented the music on the CD in reverse chronological order which means that the unaccompanied large-scale Variations on the ‘Volga Boatman’ come first. Although one can re-programme the playing order of a CD this strikes me as a rather random idea. Anyway these variations are a tough nut to crack. There are executant problems as well. Especially early on in the piece, the double-stopping high in the cello’s register is unreliable in its intonation. Perhaps Niels Ullner should have asked for a re-take. But these slight problems should not detract from what is a very committed performance of an extraordinary, moving and clever work. 

The influences acknowledged by Bentzon and indeed those audible to the listener, are more easily found in the other two works which are for cello and piano. These are Hindemith, in the somewhat classical approach, Bartók in the excited motoric rhythms, and Schoenberg in the use of a rather personal but quite clear twelve-tone technique. Stravinsky is sometimes not all that far away either. I can certainly hear Vagn Holmboe especially in the Op. 43 Sonata, but it is the spirit of Carl Nielsen that seems to be looking over the younger composer’s shoulder with his use of modal chromaticism. In Bentzon, though, the result is more chromatic than modal. The Op. 43 work is contemporaneous with the Third Symphony (Op. 48). The pastoral tones of the first movement of that work are subverted as it proceeds by overpowering events and this has a slight parallel in the Sonata. The last movement of Op. 43 begins with a confident scalic idea before powering into a crushing, final Allegro. This is a tough work but be the time I had heard it through to the end I had to admit that I could not find a strongly individual voice. 

The Third Sonata was written when Bentzon was about 52. Here we have the fully mature composer speaking out. Not a single note is wasted. It begins with a scurrying cello idea repeated several times under a nervous series of piano chords One is reminded a little of Bartók. Against ostinato chords in one instrument a winding melody of nebulous tonality moves around in the other seeking direction. It ends as if in disgrace on an unsettling major triad. The second movement, rather oddly marked Minuetto although it rarely stays in three time, has its cello melody punctuated by aggressive chords. It has a clear ‘Trio’ section of much delicacy and contrast which produces some interesting effects. Tonality is strongly hinted at but it is very insecure and listeners have to allow themselves to be led into a curious no-man’s-land. The finale begins atmospherically with chords in harmonics in the cello accompanied by occasional cello trills and punctuated by pregnant silences. The Largo introduction plumbs the abyss only for a moment (oh how I wanted more!) before a somewhat nondescript Allegro. This in fact seems more like note-spinning until one realises how the ideas relate to the first movement. 

At the end of the disc, and after several playings, I feel surprisingly disappointed. This is a pity because I have enjoyed and been excited by two of Bentzon’s symphonies (3 and 4 on Da Capo DCD 9102). Although I am perfectly willing to put it down to my unsympathetic ear on this occasion or the fact that none of the works seem to take off I also wonder if the performances, lacking a real feel for the music, may also have contributed towards my apathy. Yet Niels Ullner and Rosalind Bevan have faultless CVs (as given in the booklet). Bevan is recognized as a performer of contemporary music. At the end of it all I can only say that it is unlikely that I will listen to this CD much if ever again, but for you it could of course be entirely different. 

The booklet essay by Henrik Friis is detailed but readable with indispensable notes on the music, the composer and the performers. The recording is fairly forward but generally ideal for this repertoire. 

Gary Higginson  



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