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
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.