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Fartein VALEN (1887-1952)
Pastorale op. 11 (1930) [3:22]
Sonetto di Michelangelo op. 17 no. 1 (1932) [5:33]
Cantico di Ringraziamento op. 17 no. 2 (1932) [7:54]
Symphony No. 1 op. 30 (1939) [26:30]
Violin Concerto op. 37 (1940) [13:27]
Elise Båtnes (violin)
Stavanger Symphony Orchestra/Christian Eggen
rec. Stavanger Concert Hall, Norway, April, August, 2005, May-June, November 2006. DDD 
BIS CD1522 [58:06] 

Experience Classicsonline

Having been competely foxed by one of Patrick Waller's sound extract quizzes and having found out that the composer was Valen I was keen to tackle this disc. 

It is declared as "volume 1" so there will be more to come. Rather like Chandos, Bis are masters of commitment to the long haul major project. 

I had come to appreciate the very compact Valen Violin Concerto in a performance by Arve Tellefesen taken from an NKF LP. A friend had sent me a cassette of this back almost thirty years ago. I had also invested in the two CD set of the four Valen symphonies (NIM CDN31000-1, Bergen Philharmonic/Aldo Ceccato) when this was issued during the 1980s although I found myself not at all receptive at that stage. 

Valen as a composer was seized by music as a vocation - rather like his parents who travelled to Madagascar as missionaries. He studied in Germany in the 1910s and after an immersion in the denser romantic classics found his way to Schoenberg and Berg. They are indelibly imprinted on his music but matched with Gallic delicacy. 

An often pointillistic dissonance grips his music. His Bergian Pastorale is a brief and lullingly motionless portrait of the composer's rose garden. Then come the two op. 17 pieces. The first has the shiver and dankness of Bridge's There is a Willow. It's all very fastidiously orchestrated with much soloistic work floating free from an already sensitive orchestral weave. An expressionistic dissonance saturates both pieces and there are moments in the Cantico where the romantic complexity of Zemlinsky is suggested.

The four-movement First Symphony has the darting, probing energy and voltage of the Hartmann symphonies. Dissonance is still deployed but by contrast with the earlier three pieces there is a greater sense of momentum and forward movement. The music twists and turns in mood between strained anxiety, disillusion and angry outbursts. The impudent oboe in the third movement ushers in quick-moving music. The finale returns to the angst and tension of earlier movements in a way that suggests conflict. World events may have explained this although I suspect that our eagerness to make a linkage of music to politics  and current affairs can be misguided. 

The 13 minute Violin Concerto was intended as a memorial to his godchild Arne Valen who had died of tuberculosis in 1936. This was the year of the premiere of the Berg Violin Concerto dedicated to Manon Gropius who had also died in childhood. The Valen work was quickly completed but it was the performance at the 1948 ISCM festival that saw it and Valen's name take a hold on world attention. The music and mood is not as tense or aggressive as those of the First Symphony. Båtnes's vibrantly searching but clear-toned playing - assertively captured by the engineers - leads the listener onwards. The music has more in common with the Pastorale and the Op. 17 pair than with the First Symphony. The violin line is quite romantic and for the most part the dissonance arises from the orchestral texturing. It's an impressive lyrical yet astringent piece and well worth exploring if you like the Berg or the Frankel. 

Following this pattern we can expect at least three other volumes each with a Valen symphony as a centre-piece. Bis certainly have no reason to move the project away from Stavanger. 

Rob Barnett



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