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Johan Severin SVENDSEN (1840-1911)
Sigurd Slembe, Op. 8 (1862) [10:45]
Zorahayda, Op. 11 (1872) [13:34]
Johan Peter SELMER (1844-1910)
Carnival at Flanders, Op. 32 [18:57]
Prometheus, Op. 50 [33:14]
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Michail Jurowski
rec. 25-29 August 2003, Oslo Konserthaus
SIMAX PSC1233 [76:33] 

 


Johan Severin Svendsen was born into a musical family. His father was a military musician who insisted that his son master several instruments. When he became old enough, the young Johan also entered military service, later going to Leipzig to study and then to Bayreuth, where he met Wagner. He would later work with Grieg as conductor of the Music Society Orchestra in Kristiania. His final position would be as Kappellmeister at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen, a job that would so tax his time that his career as a composer was effectively ended. 

Sigurd Slembe was inspired by both a drama by Bjønstjerne Bjønson and a painting by Ole Peter Hansen. The work follows two episodes in the hero’s life: his love for a beautiful Lapp girl, and his death in battle. Svendsen’s score is colorful, at times deeply passionate, at others achingly tender. Although its harmonic language is purely romantic, the work is devoid of German molasses, and possesses a more open and airy orchestration than do the works of Brahms, Bruckner or Wagner, giving it a vibrant sound that is so refreshing in music from Northern Europe. 

Based on Washington Irving’s translation of The Legend of the Rose of Alhambra, Svendsen’s Zorahayda, which he subtitled “legend for orchestra” was heavily influenced by Wagner. The Svendsens were in Bayreuth when it was composed and Wagner was busy working on Parsifal at the time. Wagner was obsessed with the rite of Holy Communion during his work on Parsifal. That the central theme of Zorahayda is the sacrament of Holy Baptism is clear evidence of Wagner’s influence on the younger composer at the time. Highly programmatic, Svendsen divides the music into six episodes that correspond with events in the story. The music that he created is stunning, with ravishingly beautiful textures and harmonies, and an adept hand at orchestration that could rival Berlioz or Rimsky-Korsakov. 

Johan Peter Selmer’s career was in many ways, similar to Svendsen’s in that they both studied abroad, both were greatly influenced by contemporary giants of music - in Selmer’s case it was Berlioz. They both returned home later in life to reasonable success. Their differences lie in their music. Whereas Svendsen is possessed of a certain profundity and grace, Selmer is more light-hearted in his approach, and as such the music, while well constructed, does not make either an immediate or lasting impression. The two works presented here could almost be considered in the “light music” genre, with their airy little tunes and rhythmic gestures that are more akin to music for wind band than orchestra. 

Michail Jurowski leads fine, taut performances of all of this music. The standout performance here is Zorahayda which Jurowski treats with great tenderness and depth of emotion. The Oslo orchestra’s reputation has been long established, and they do not fail to live up to their high standards here. Warm strings, clean winds and pungent brasses all get their moments in the sun. 

Kevin Sutton 

 

 

 

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