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of Verona seem to have been replaced by the well wrapped up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
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 ...
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