Halvorsen was a name that rang vague bells with me, but only as a name, rather than in connection with any particular piece of music. Looking through the database of my CD collection, I found no entries at all for him. So quite what made me pick this disc up from the store shelves, I don’t know – perhaps the Special Price sticker and the name Chandos.
For those like myself for whom Halvorsen is an unknown, some biographical details are appropriate. Perhaps we shouldn’t feel too bad, since his name is also missing from the Gilder Dictionary of Composers hosted on this site. He was Norwegian, a generation after Grieg, whose niece Halvorsen married, and composed in the Romantic nationalist style of his famous predecessor.
Musically precocious, he was playing in a professional orchestra at the age of fifteen, and leader of the Bergen Philharmonic - who play on this recording - at twenty-one. After some study in Germany, he worked in Scotland and Finland as a violinist and teacher, before returning to Bergen as conductor of the orchestra. His appointment in 1899 as conductor of the National Theatre orchestra provided him with employment for the rest of his working life, and allowed him to compose incidental music for more than thirty plays. His compositions for the concert hall include three symphonies, two Norwegian rhapsodies and a regrettably lost violin concerto, but it is two of his earlier compositions – Entry March of the Boyars and Passacaglia on a theme of Handel – which are most recorded.
In name at the very least, the Suite ancienne brings to mind Grieg’s Holberg Suite: subtitled Suite in olden style. Halvorsen reverses the naming, subtitling the work “to the memory of Ludvig Holberg”. Halvorsen wrote a series of entr’actes for the Holberg play Barselstuen (The Lying-in Room) which became the five movements of this work. I find a Haydn lightness and humour in all five movements, particularly the Intrada (I) and Gigue (III), while the closing Bourreé makes me think of Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs.
The three shorter works in the middle of the program are for violin and orchestra, and call for virtuosity on the soloist’s part. The three Norwegian Dances follow closely in the tradition of Grieg, but also draw inspiration from the national dances by Brahms, Dvorak, Wieniawski and Sarasate, which Halvorsen performed as either violinist or conductor. They were written originally for violin and piano, and were based on Norwegian folk-tunes (as is the Air norvégien); the orchestrations are by Halvorsen. The Chant de la Veslemöy is of a very different mood to the dances and Air – a rapturous portrait of a beautiful young woman – bringing to mind the slow movement from the Bruch G minor concerto.
The major work is the Symphony. It has an opening motif akin to Beethoven 5 and Tchaikovsky 4, hence the nickname of Fatum (Latin for fate), which recurs in quite different forms through all four movements. The opening Allegro is suitably dramatic, but it is the Romance which follows that is the outstanding movement – a beautiful opening theme played by solo oboe, building into an intense climax with the fate theme. The Intermezzo is jaunty and hides its variant of the fate theme very effectively, to the point where you need to be a gifted musicologist, it seems, to find it. The Finale runs through a gamut of moods – high spirited pizzicatos, swelling mini-climaxes redolent of Tchaikovsky and tender moments for solo woodwind, before a percussion-driven coda which doesn’t take itself too seriously. None of the movements outstay its welcome – the longest is less than nine minutes – and the overall result is highly enjoyable.
The Bergen players and Neeme Järvi give this music their fullest attention, and it is hard to imagine it being played any better. Marianne Thorsen has the requisite technique to play the virtuosic parts, and the sweetness of tone to sing in the Chant. Sound quality is of the usual Chandos standard, and the notes are very informative, essential given the paucity of knowledge of the music and its composer.
You will notice it is Volume 2 – Volume 1 (CHAN10584 with Symphony 1 and the Maskarade Suite) seems to have slipped through the cracks at MusicWeb International. It is an absence that will have to be rectified, because if it is anywhere near as good as this release, it needs to be brought to your attention as soon as possible.
This music may not be the ultimate in seriousness or the pinnacle in inspiration – I very much doubt there are any works still out there waiting to be discovered which would rank with the greats of the repertoire – but if you respond to Dvorak and Bruch, I’m sure that you will be thoroughly entertained. It will certainly find its way into my Recordings of the Year.
David J Barker