Before I got this disc Catharinus Elling was little more than
a name in the margin of Norwegian music for me. I can’t
remember hearing anything of him before. This disc then was a
total surprise. Here is a highly personal and technically well
endowed composer with a particular feeling for the interaction
between words and music. Every song here seems to have sprung
directly out of the poem and the result is not only congenial
but feels ineluctable. Basically Elling is no innovator. He is
deeply rooted in the Romantic tradition of Schumann and Brahms
- and there are worse models - but this may also be the reason
for his relative neglect: he was unfashionable even during his
active years. A century later we are able to appreciate his compositions
for their intrinsic value - they are no longer outmoded documents
of a specific period.
And who was he? Catharinus Elling was born in Oslo, where he
also died. He was the fourth of seven siblings. His younger brother
Aegidius Elling, engineer and inventor, is regarded as the father
of the gas turbine. Catharinus studied piano and composition
in Leipzig and Berlin. Between 1896 and 1908 he taught at the
Music Conservatory in Oslo, whereupon he was organist at Gamlebyen
Church until 1926. Parallel with his teaching commission he spent
several years collecting and arranging Norwegian folk music.
His compositions comprise symphonies, a violin concerto, chamber
music, an opera and more than 200 songs.
His deep interest in folk music has, to judge from this disc,
made little or no impression on his own compositions. Whereas
Grieg’s music can almost always be identified as Nordic
or more specifically Norwegian, Elling’s cannot. One reason
may be that the intense period of collecting and transcribing
folk music took place after he wrote the songs here.
Arne Garborg’s Haugtussa
was published in 1895 and
both Grieg and Elling set to work on composing their respective
song-cycles, as far as is known unaware of each other’s
activities. Their versions are not strictly comparable since
Elling set twelve of the poems, Grieg only eight and they have
just four in common: Elsk
Sparrow), Ved Gjaetle-Bekken
(By Gjaetle Brook) and Killingdans
Dance). It is interesting to note that the two settings of the
last-mentioned have a lot in common, maybe confirming the accuracy
in Grieg’s comment that the music was already there in
the poem; it only needed to be written down.
Throughout the two groups of Haugtussa
one marvels time
and again at Elling’s fresh and natural approach to the
poems and even though Grieg’s settings are forever established
as definitive, Elling’s are worthy alternatives, well worth
reviving. Some of the songs also became rather popular and at
was occasionally sung in recitals until
The Bjørnson setting is also from 1895. It is again at
one with the mild melancholy of the poem. This is one of three
songs from the novel En dag
(One Day), published in 1893.
To yield full benefit of art songs, whether in Norwegian or any
other language, it is an advantage to have some knowledge of
the language. The English translations here are good but like
all translations they are only approximations. This is no doubt
the reason why songs in peripheral languages - at least from
a Central European point of view - have had difficulty becoming
internationally established. From this aspect the German songs
Op. 12 might have greater appeal. They were composed in the early
1880s and are little gems, all of them. Heinrich Heine was one
of Elling’s most important sources of inspiration at the
time - as he was to so many other composers in the 19th
Elling must have known some famous settings from the earlier
part of the century but his own are no pale imitations. They
are fresh and inventive, and his melodic vein is striking. Just
listen to the simple but beautiful melody that carries Nachts
in der Kajüte I
forward. It is also interesting to compare
his setting of Allnächtlich im Traume
Schumann is mildly resigned, Elling is darker and more uproarious.
The person who must be given the credit for unearthing these
lovely songs is Ann-Helen Moen, who went to the Norwegian National
Music Library ‘on a treasure hunt’ as she writes
in a note in the booklet. In a pile of scores she came across Elsk
was love at first hearing’ - she was sure she had struck
gold. With this disc she wants to share those riches with others.
That she loves the songs is obvious from the first note, and
with her beautiful lyric soprano she has the ideal instrument
to convey this love to the listener. And she has enough heft
to make also the dramatic songs tell - without ever overtaxing
it. At her side she has Gunilla Süssmann, today one of the
foremost Norwegian pianists. She makes the most of the often
quite intricate accompaniments.
The programme was recorded in agreeable acoustics in a Norwegian
church, Jar kirke in Akershus fylke, close to Oslo, a rectangular
brick building, erected in 1961. The booklet, as always with
Simax, is a model of its kind, with full texts and extensive
essays on the composer and the music in Norwegian and English.
Those reading the English comments on the music - more specifically
on the Op. 12 songs on page 6 - should be warned, however, that
the text doesn’t end there. It continues - without reference
- on page 21.
This is a lovely recital and it is particularly valuable for
rehabilitating Catharinus Elling’s status as composer.