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) [12:21]
South Jutland Symphony Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset
rec. Alsion Concert Hall, Sǿnderborg, Denmark, 18-21 December 2007. DDD
NAXOS 8.570322 [64:55]

Grieg and Svendsen are usually paired as the most significant Norwegian composers of their generation, with Svendsen being described as less nationalistic than Grieg. While this is to some degree true, there is still plenty of Romantic feeling in his works and an equal devotion to folk music, which in Svendsen’s case extends to several other countries besides Norway. Both the folk side and the Romantic are evidenced by the music on this disc.

The four Norwegian Rhapsodies are among the composer’s most popular works, but one should not assume they constitute the typical nineteenth century mélange of folk tunes. Rather they take the tunes as a point of departure, manipulating them in a more symphonic fashion than is common with folk rhapsodies and the like. The First Rhapsody starts with a theme that will be familiar to those who know Grieg’s Slåtter and which is countered by a beautiful theme on viola. This is eventually taken up by the whole orchestra. The combination of the two themes in the last part of the piece is well done. The Second Rhapsody is more complex in structure than its predecessor. There are three main themes, the first being intensely Norwegian in its syncopations, while the second is quite elegiac, with an interesting use of brass. The third theme is rustic, but the highlight of the piece is how the three themes are eventually combined in an altogether charming way.

The Third Rhapsody is more emotionally varied than the first two. It has a most original first theme followed by a beautiful transition to a second theme which is one of Svendsen’s best inspirations-truly tragic. The third theme is energetic, but shows elements of the second in its make-up and shares much of its eloquence. The last of the Rhapsodies has a moody introduction followed by a lively theme which may also be familiar to some listeners. This is followed by one that is very moody; then the two themes are developed in alternation so as to maximize contrast. This is very cleverly done before leading to a delightful coda.

Svendsen’s symphonic poems are not pictorial in the Richard Strauss sense, but evocations of the emotions involved in the basic story. Romeo and Juliet has an interesting form with an imposing introduction followed by a serious theme, impressively developed, and then an oboe theme derivative of the previous material. All of this is then developed in such a way as to evoke the emotional atmosphere of the tragedy that we all know. The ending is more resigned than anything else, as if the lovers’ fate was pre-ordained. Zorahayda is based on a tale by Washington Irving recounting the love of a Moorish princess for a Christian knight. Rather than ending tragically as does Tasso’s Clorinda, the princess is eventually baptized with water from the fountain of the Alhambra. This moment is a masterpiece of orchestration and one of the composer’s greatest moments. The ending of the work with horns prominent is also notable.

The South Jutland Symphony Orchestra has had Carl Gararguly, Iona Brown and Niklas Willén among its past conductors and this shows in the excellence of their ensemble, although their sound can still occasionally be harsh. However, their woodwinds, especially in the first two Norwegian Rhapsodies, cannot be faulted. Their first oboist is frequently called upon in these works and also deserves special praise. Bjarte Engeset has conducted in a wide range of venues and repertoire. His Svendsen is rather meditative and deliberate. Those desiring more vivid performances might want to look at those of Jurowski [see review] or Andersen.

William Kreindler