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Download: Classicsonline

Johan SVENDSEN (1840-1911)
Romeo and Juliet, op.18 (1876) [12:17]
Norwegian Rhapsody no.1, op.17 (1876) [9:13]
Norwegian Rhapsody no.2, op.19 (1876) [8:51]
Norwegian Rhapsody no.3, op.21 (1876) [9:54]
Norwegian Rhapsody no.4, op.22 (1877) [12:18]
Zorahayda, op.11 (1874, rev. 1879) [12:21]
South Jutland Symphony Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset
rec. Alsion Concert Hall, Sønderborg, Denmark, 18-21 December 2007
NAXOS 8.570322 [64:55]


Experience Classicsonline

Perhaps it’s just that I’m writing this review in the wrong location. If I were perched on a cliff overlooking a Norwegian fjord, maybe the music would grip me more. As it is, Svendsen’s musical depictions of his native land are insufficiently alluring to tempt me from my current location on a beautiful stretch of Thai beach.
The composer, best known on CD for a handful of excellent outings for his two symphonies, produced the works on this present disc in the years 1874-1877. They are all well crafted and workmanlike: relatively undemanding material that provided ideal fillers for the era’s busy concert programmes. But their decline into relative obscurity is easily understandable. There is little here to stimulate or challenge the intellect, sway the heart or even get the feet tapping. Sibelius’s Finlandia has achieved a permanent place in the repertoire; Alfven’s Swedish Rhapsody no.1 has a tune that is still – thanks, not least, to Mantovani and his Orchestra - instantly recognisable. Svendsen’s nationalistic compositions unfortunately amount to early musical precursors of Norway’s remarkable history of clocking up more nul points scores in the Eurovision Song Contest than any other nation.
Frequently taking native folk melodies as at least their starting point, the Norwegian Rhapsodies are unlikely to frighten the horses. Richard Whitehouse’s interesting booklet notes point to Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies as sources of inspiration, but the older composer’s use of zigeuner rhythms and soulful sentimentality creates a far more compelling and sensual musical mix than the Norwegian’s more buttoned up and respectably Lutheran approach is able to do. Liszt’s gypsies clearly knew how to have fun; Svendsen’s Norwegians sound as though they’d run a mile from even a modest glass of aquavit. Hard liquor, incidentally, is still banned from sale in Norway on Sundays.
The depiction of Shakespeare’s lovers is rather more interestingly done but is handicapped by Svendsen’s somewhat cool and detached approach to their doomed romance. Here the hot-blooded citizens of Verona seem to have been replaced by the well wrapped up – in every sense - burghers of Vardø. The underlying tone – perceptively characterised by Richard Whitehouse as one of subdued fatalism – may explain why the critics’ response at the work’s premiere was generally lukewarm. It was only a few years later that Tchaikovsky was to demonstrate the greater effectiveness of music that recast the story as a full-blown dramatic tragedy. His more heart-on-sleeve approach has justifiably captured the affections of music-lovers ever since and has condemned Svendsen’s op.18 to relative obscurity. It is good, though, to have it here as part of a rounded picture of the composer’s style.
The final work on the disc, Zorahayda, takes as its inspiration a story of an apostate Moslem princess who forsakes her faith for the sake of her Christian lover. Whereas today such a theme would probably, in certain parts of the world, ensure the imposition of an immediate fatwa on the poor girl – not to mention the composer – it seems that 1870s audiences were far more receptive to such a tale and so Zorahayda became the one of the more popular of Svendsen’s occasional pieces. While the composer avoids the full-blown orientalism that we find in contemporaries such as Rimsky-Korsakov or Borodin, it is easy to see how his creative scoring and attractive melodies found favour at the time.
While it is good to hear these pieces in such committed and professionally executed performances as these – and in first rate sound and at bargain price, too – it would clearly be idle to claim that Svendsen is a neglected composer of the first rank. He was certainly, though, a more than competent practitioner of his craft/art - the jury remains out on that one.
But musical reputation is a fickle thing and – who can tell? - perhaps if he too had been taken up by Signor Mantovani ...
Rob Maynard

See also review by William Kreindler



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