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Victor BENDIX (1851-1926)
Symphony No. 1 in C major Mountain Climbing’ Op. 16 (1882) [33:42]
Symphony No. 2 in D major Sounds of Summer from South Russia’ Op. 20 (1888) [31:58]
Symphony No. 3 in A minor (1895) Op. 25 [33:16]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor (1906) Op. 30 [34:31]
Omsk Philharmonic Orchestra/Evgeni Shestakov
rec. Concert Hall, Omsk 1995 (1-3); July-Aug 1999 (4). DDD
DANACORD DACOCD 436-437 [66.37 + 66.04]
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Danacord is very much what Chandos used to be. There was a time when hardly a week went past without another British symphony featuring in the new releases columns of the musical press. The complete symphonies of Bax, Rubbra, Alwyn, Parry and Stanford were eagerly awaited and duly delivered. Chandos now seem to have by and large decided against British symphonic music (Berkeley notwithstanding) – not so good for the British music enthusiast who still waits for symphonies by Baines, Dunhill and Bate to mention but three. However Danish music suffers no less at the hands of the majority of that country’s CD producers.

Jesper Buhl has written a long essay to accompany this present release. Most of it concentrates on the work of the Omsk Philharmonic Orchestra and the recording of these symphonies. However no small part is taken up with a very courageous shot across the bows of the musical establishment in Denmark - and by implication worldwide too.

He complains that Danish orchestral music from before the Second World War occupied an extremely small proportion of currently available CDs. He suggests that music critics seem to be hostile to ‘all symphonic music not bearing the hallmark: "composed by Carl Nielsen’" and this prejudice made the present recording of Bendix’s works all the more difficult. He mentioned the relative lack of interest and hostility with which Danish reviewers received the Rued Langgaard symphonic cycle. Yet what is heartening is that outside Denmark, Buhl has noted considerable interest and enthusiasm for these post-romantic works. In fact the first review of Langgaard was produced in Poland – away from the ‘domestic mud-slinging’. Furthermore he explains that no financial or even moral support was forthcoming from Danish musical institutions towards the production costs of this present CD set.

In many ways this experience is familiar to British listeners too. Few concert promoters would wish to perform works by Bainton, Holbrooke or Gipps, but would always be prepared to endorse the potboilers of Ludwig Van and Rach - Not that I decry their music. CD companies - with a few honourable exceptions - seem keen to churn out version after version of the Top 100 classics.

Just for the record, there is one version of Bendix’s Third Symphony compared to at least 182 versions of Beethoven Third!

It is fortunate that we have committed record producers like Jesper Buhl and we ought to support him and his company by purchasing CDs that certainly seem to this listener at least, to be great contributions to Western romantic and post-romantic music. To be fair to Chandos, though, they did release a cycle of Neils Gade Symphonies a few years ago.

This is not the place to write a detailed synopsis of Victor Bendix’s life and work. Nor is it appropriate to consider each of these symphonies in detail.

The title of the First Symphony (1882) immediately suggests a number of parallels to the musically literate. Some of these references predate, and some post-date the work. One thinks of Franz Liszt’s tone poem, ‘Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne’ for example. Then there is Vincent D’Indy’s peregrination to the high places. Of course Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony (1915) came a touch later and is less classically structured. The present work is based on a poem by Holger Drachman called ‘Mountain Climbing’. However the sleeve-notes suggest that the poem may actually have been inspired by the music – so who knows? In some ways I liked this symphony the best of all. Perhaps it is the slow introduction that impressed me most?

The Second Symphony carries the pseudo-programmatic title of ‘Sounds of Summer from South Russia’ It is of course perfectly possible to dump these images and listen to this work as a straight piece of absolute music. In fact the liner notes suggest that there is really no programme at all. It was possibly written after the composer had been on a tour of Russia and absorbed the local musical cultures. However, it seems that there is a genuine doubt as to whether he actually visited Russia in the first place! This Symphony proved to be the most popular of the Bendix cycle. There is a school of thought that suggests this work does not quite carry itself off because of the similarity of the movements. Three of them are in the same key of D major. Further, virtually the entire composition is written in a ‘persistently pastoral mood.’ Of course this is not entirely true - for example listen to the finale with its impressive last few pages. But the generalisation perhaps holds good. Yet the bottom line is that the music is extremely attractive and often quite moving. Rob Barnett has discerned echoes or pre-echoes of Glazunov and Hugo Alfvén in this music. For my own part I could almost be convinced that Elgar had heard some of this music. The work is in the conventional four movement pattern.

The Third Symphony is a bit more experimental than the preceding works. There are only three movements here and they have an unusual balance. The first is quite restrained, the second is a ‘fantastic’ scherzo and the finale is in fact the slow movement. Rob Barnett has likened some of this music to that of Charles Villiers Stanford and this comparison bears examination. Once again the first movement contains some of the best music – in fact it is an extremely beautiful meditation on who knows what? The second movement is subtitled ‘Multicoloured Pictures’ and is apparently based on ‘shifting street scenes’ – but once again it is not necessary to apply this imagery to enjoy what is a really fine scherzo. The last movement is an 'elegie' and lasts for some 13 minutes. I think that this is my favourite moment on the entire two CD set. It is not possible to say that it sounds like this composer or that – it is just Bendix writing some extremely beautiful and moving music. The entire work deserves recognition as one of the great 19th century symphonies. Yet I doubt that one music listener in 10,000 will ever get to grips with it – which is a crying shame.

The Fourth Symphony probably does not stand much chance of universal recognition. For one thing it has never been published. The CD notes point out that Victor Bendix was extremely disappointed at the ‘cool’ reception of this work and that no one seemed keen to engrave the score. It was dedicated to Bendix’s wife Dagmar and was composed in 1906. It appears that critics regard this work as transitional – the only problem being that it went nowhere! There were to be no more symphonies although the composer was to live for another twenty years. Yet in my opinion it is not a throwaway work. I think it will require a bit more effort from listeners - this one included - to get to the bottom of what Bendix is trying to say. Yet in some ways this work is nearer to our own times – there are glorious hints of the romantic Elgar. Bendix certainly does not wear his heart on his sleeve here – but there is much that is passionate and sometimes intense. Perhaps there is a little stylistic difficulty – Brahms can be discerned – almost literally at one point: Nielsen was obviously influential. The second movement is perhaps the most challenging – being quite different to much that we have heard in the previous three symphonies. It is not that it is modernist – it is just that much more ‘spare’ in texture. Yet the third movement restores our image of the composer as a romantic. This is a particularly gorgeous movement. The solo passages for horn are toe-curling! However I agree with Rob that the last movement seems to lack inspiration although the big tune is actually quite impressive – yet the peroration never really arrives and the symphony ends weakly. In the round, I feel that this work is a little patchy.

This is a fine conspectus of Victor Bendix’s Symphonies. It is a great cycle – even if there are a number of places in the fifteen movements where interest tends to flag. This is not a problem – as I find this to be true of many composers who claim greater fame than Bendix.

As I noted above these four symphonies will probably never become ‘popular’ – I can hardly imagine ‘Classic FM’ playing a single movement from them – unless David Mellor discovers them. So these works will remain the preserve of a few enthusiasts and other listeners who dare to look beyond the obvious.

John France



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