Johan HALVORSEN (1864 – 1935)
Orchestral Works - Volume 2
Suite ancienne Op.31a (1911) [25:25]
Three Norwegian Dances* (1896/1930) [10:39]
Air norvégien Op.7* (1903) [7:48]
Chant de la Veslemöy* (1899) [3:30]
Symphony No.2 ‘Fatum’ (1924) [27:57]
Marianne Torsen (violin*)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway, 24 August – 2 September 2009
CHANDOS CHAN 10614 [75:50]
Has there ever been a conductor whose recorded catalogue has included as many cycles and sets of compositions across as wide a field of repertoire as Neeme Järvi? And with such palpable success. For sure he has been fortunate in that the orchestras he has recorded with and the companies making the discs have always demonstrated the very highest production and performance values. However the inescapable fact is that Järvi is blessed with the gift of recreating in the studio an energy and thrill of discovery that eludes all but the very finest conductors. This new disc – another series mind – Volume 2 of the orchestral works of Johan Halvorsen - embodies all of the best virtues of the Järvi/Chandos creative partnership. Yes I know the criticism of a certain brusqueness verging on the superficial has been levelled at his conducting – perhaps with some justification in his Bruckner and Mahler - but for the music recorded here the result is a disc brimful of sparkling energy which presents this music in its best possible light.
No, Halvorsen is not a major forgotten master but he is a fine craftsman with a gift for melody. That being said there are a couple of musical highlights here which touch an emotional nerve with some power. In particular I’m thinking of the 4th movement of the Suite Ancienne Op.31a [track 4] – Sarabande. Øyvin Dysband in his very informative liner-note makes the link – verging on respectful tribute – this music makes to the same titled movement in Grieg’s Holberg Suite but Halvorsen’s writing for a full orchestra allows for a climax of real power. Fantastically played here by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra which throughout the disc is on top form. With engineering and production in the ‘dream-team’ hands of Brian Pidgeon and Ralph Couzens I would say this is one of the best-sounding discs I have heard from Chandos in some time with an ideal balance between detail, power and ambience. The twenty-five minute Suite Ancienne Op.31a is the rarest work presented here and also the best. Originally written as a series of entr’actes for a production of the play The Lying-in Room by the 18th Century dramatist Ludvig Holberg, it inhabits the musical world of the light orchestral suite all but lost as a genre today. Halvorsen is a bit of a musical magpie; the opening Intrata bustles with the same kind of energy and humour that inhabits the Respighi Ancient Airs and Dances or The Birds or perhaps more so the Scarlatti/Tomasini Good Humoured Ladies – although it should be pointed out that Halvorsen uses original melodic material. Dysband spots an echo of the Prokofiev Classical Symphony which I had noted before reading the liner. Also, the theme used in the second movement Air con variazioni and his treatment of it had me thinking of the Dvorák Symphonic Variations – meltingly beautiful oboe playing here. But please do not take from the above paragraph a sense that this is a cobbling together of other composer’s best bits. Rather wonderfully, for all the influences digested or otherwise, the result is an absolutely charming work – I can see why Halvorsen counted it as one of his very finest compositions.
Looking at Halvorsen’s compositional dates comes as something of a shock. The Suite above dates from 1911 and the symphony on this disc from 1924. But trying to fit him onto the great musico/historical time-line does no-one any great service. This is all music that would sit very comfortably around 1880 and not sound radical then. Best to enjoy it in its own right and not worry about the core-conservatism it espouses. The remainder of the disc comes into direct competition/comparison with performances by the Oslo Philharmonic under Karsten Andersen – with violinist Terje Tønnesen – released on the Norsk Kulturråds Klassikerserie label in 1988. Direct comparisons are fascinating. In the solo works Tønnesen is consistently faster than the Chandos violinist Marianne Thorsen. Both players, I should stress, are very fine indeed but my feeling is that Tønnesen’s instinct is right. Halvorsen was a violinist himself so he knows his way around a fiddle and had played the national dances of both Sarasate and Wieniawski giving him a practitioner’s understanding of how to fuse the folk element to the virtuosic. But where I think it works against him is that the musical mother lode of the Norwegian folk-material for all its earthy energy doesn’t sit easily with the flamboyance demanded of the 19th Century virtuoso. So the result is some great ‘original’ material onto which is grafted virtuosic gestures; they lack an organic unity. Tønnesen’s fractionally more vigorous indeed earthy approach – and rather rougher style – actually helps distract one’s attention from that inherent tension in the chosen musical form. These are works that will never make it into the concert hall any more. Running at just ten and a half minutes the Three Norwegian Dances simply do not fit into any modern-day programmer’s frame of reference. Which is why we should be all the more grateful for this new version. Again, the performance oozes quality – in pure engineering terms outclassing the earlier Norsk disc by a country mile. If you have any kind of weakness for virtuoso violin music with a nationalistic slant you will find much to enjoy here. Of the concertante works the reflective Chant de la Veslemöy is the most charming – a kind of vocalise for violin and strings. Thorsen takes a full minute longer than Tønnesen which in a piece which lasts only 3:30 in the slower version is a huge difference. Thorsen is – not surprisingly – far more reflective and poetic, Tønnesen’s rather forthright and literal style which paid dividends in the dances and Air sounds too plain here and is not helped by the closer miking.
Which leaves the 1924 Symphony No.2 ‘Fatum’. Halvorsen’s idea of fate here is much the same as Tchaikovsky in his Symphony No.4. Dysband likens the fate motif to the opening of Mahler’s Symphony No.6 but this time I cannot agree. Yes there is a similarity to the melodic outline but I think this is just trying to give it significance by association. Again differences in timings can tell only part of the story but Järvi shaves over five minutes off Andersen’s playing time with the first movement alone counting for three of those minutes. Not having access to a score I’m cautious about asserting that both performances play exactly the same number of bars or even notes – this new recording takes advantage of a new critical edition which – apparently – corrects errors which number in the thousands[!] But that aside this is Järvi in his musical element – the performance dynamic and thrusting, full of excitement and verve. In his hands the work is transformed. What under Andersen sounds earnest and often dull here becomes powerful and compelling. Not that Järvi is simply fast, he is still able to turn lyrical phrases with real grace and affection – try the second movement Romance [track 12]. Ultimately, I’m still not convinced this is a great work. Given Halvorsen’s theatrical background I feel his strength is in the field of the pictorial and programmatic. Hence, I feel the form of the suite suits him better than the abstract symphony. Perhaps that was why he needed the idea of ‘fate’ to hang the concept of a symphony on. However, by running for less than half an hour in this performance it does not outstay its welcome and there are many pleasures to be had along the way. Halvorsen’s orchestration is always well-crafted if never remarkable. Certainly the Bergen players sound as though they enjoy playing their parts – at the risk of becoming repetitious – the quality of the playing on this disc is one of its great pleasures. I will be interested to see if Volume 3 of this series includes the Scenes from Norwegian Tales which is the filler on the Andersen disc as opposed to the Suite Ancienne here. That is a gem of a suite full of character and national colour and a work that would be meat and drink to the team on this disc.
So a disc of the very highest quality and certainly one which will make me seek out the Volume 1 I missed and look forward to Volume 3. Musically enjoyable if not life-changing but another bull’s-eye for the prodigiously comprehensive Neeme Järvi.
see also review by David J Barker
Musically enjoyable if not life-changing - another bull’s-eye for the prodigiously comprehensive Neeme Järvi.