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.
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.
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.
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.
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