RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Johan HALVORSEN (1864 - 1935)
Orchestral Works - Volume 3
Symphony No.3 in C major (1928) [26:12]
Sorte Svaner ‘Black Swans’ (1921) [4:54]
Bryllupsmarsch ‘Wedding March’ Op.32 No.1* (1912) [4:13]
Rabnabryllaup uti Kraakjalund ‘Wedding of Ravens in the Grove of the Crows’ (1896) [3:59]
Fossegrimen - Drammatic Suite+ (1905) [29:49]
Bergensiana - Rococo Variations on an Old Melody from Bergen (1921) [10:17]
Marianne Torsen (violin*); Ragnhild Hemsing (Hardanger fiddle+)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway, 24 August - 2 September 2009 (Wedding March), 30 August - 1 September 2010
CHANDOS CHAN 10664 [79:53]
The liner-note for this third volume in the Chandos traversal of Halvorsen’s orchestral music states “The music of Johan Halvorsen is one of Norway’s best-kept secrets”. If there is any justice at all this will be the series of recordings to bring this delightful music to a wider audience. Having enjoyed volume two enormously when I reviewed it for this site I bought volume one which proved equally rewarding (see review). At a push I would have to say I think this new volume is the best of the lot.
There are a couple of points worth reiterating; Halvorsen writes in an idiom resolutely out of touch with the time in which it was written. So the Symphony No.3 presented here was sketched in 1928 but spiritually belongs to the end of the 19th Century. But if lyrical, beautifully crafted music is your thing this will prove irresistible. As in the two earlier volumes Neeme Järvi is in his considerable element aided by the quite excellent Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and engineering/production from the Chandos top-drawer. Violinist Marianne Thorsen adds - briefly - to the fine impression she made on both of the other discs although here she faces competition for the soloist’s laurels from Hardanger fiddler Ragnhild Hemsing; more of that later.
Only one of the works here receives a premiere recording, but as with volume two, where I have been able to make comparisons, these new versions supersede the earlier discs from Simax on every front. The programme opens with the afore-mentioned symphony. In the excellent liner-note Øyvin Dydsand notes various allusions to other composer’s works including Grieg, Sibelius’s Symphony No.1, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and even Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2. The implication, arising from a Halvorsen quote, “... there are, all in all, many peculiar things in it, just not a programme” is that these are deliberate yet enigmatic signposts. Yet I have to put up my hand and say that even though I know all of those works extremely well I could not hear the links. The similarity I did feel, which is one of mood rather than material. Dydsand makes a further point which is more valid: by the time he came to write this work Halvorsen was comfortable with his position and achievements in Norway’s musical life and felt he had nothing more to prove. So there is a sense of being ‘at ease’ in this work that is greatly appealing. Not that it lacks in drama or impact, far from it, but conversely it is not trying too hard to impress. If I were to have a criticism of the Symphony No.2 that appeared in the second volume it would be just that - Halvorsen was straining to write a major work. Here, running to just twenty-six minutes we have a beautifully proportioned piece. In mood and outlook it reminds me of those symphonies by Kurt Atterberg and Franz Schmidt - their 6th and 3rd respectively - that were written for the famous Columbia Gramophone Company’s 1928 Schubert-inspired competition - I love the idea that - ever the individual - Havergal Brian submitted his Gothic Symphony’s orchestral movements to the same competition. Nothing in the liner links the Halvorsen to the competition but the date is fascinatingly coincidental … This is an immediately appealing work with the central slow movement reaching a powerfully cinematic climax. Likewise the finale is full of energetic good humour. The liner lists seventeen tempo indications for this movement which lasts just over eight and half minutes. On the written page it seems excessive but to the ear it flows together effortlessly. Credit therefore to the performers for playing this with such conviction and apparent ease. Järvi seems to have taken to Halvorsen’s idiom with total command and identification and, as I wrote about volume 2, this disc oozes the energy and vibrant flair that has been a hallmark of Järvi’s best recordings throughout his career.
My reasoning why this is the best of the three volumes to date is that all of the music presented is of equal high quality although of diverse origins. Halvorsen’s bread-and-butter job was as musical director for theatres initially in Bergen and then from 1899 of the National Theatre in Kristiania where he worked for the next thirty years. In 1899 the orchestra of the National Theatre was the largest professional group in Norway. They performed six nights a week, giving Halvorsen a practical and pragmatic approach to his own and other's music. Halvorsen composed many scores for productions at the theatre but rather appallingly on his retirement in 1929 chose to burn the bulk of them in the theatre’s boiler room. One imagines he must have considered the scores to represent hack work rather than the best he could do. Fortunately, not all of his incidental music scores were destroyed and some examples appear here. After 1919 the orchestra was cut back to just fifteen musicians. For this very limited number Halvorsen wrote Sorte Svaner [Black Swans] - a five minute miniature that makes a fascinating contrast to the bravura of the Symphony. In many ways this is the most interesting work on the disc with Halvorsen making a virtue out of the limited resources. There is a muted ‘study in grey’ feel to this work with occasional echoes of Sibelius’ Pelleas et Melisande incidental music. Järvi is again masterly in controlling the ebb and flow although if one is being really critical you have to note that this is played by the full Bergen Orchestra as opposed to the fifteen that one supposes were originally involved which makes the central climax rather more overblown than one imagines was intended.
The most extended work recorded here is the Fossegrimen - Dramatic Suite for Orchestra. This is drawn from Halvorsen’s incidental music to the play of the same name premiered in 1905. Sub-titled ‘a troll-play in four parts’ by date and spirit this is a natural heir to Grieg’s Peer Gynt. From the incidental music Halvorsen drew a five movement suite into which Järvi has interpolated the Danse Visionaire. This solo violin and orchestra movement was a pre-existing work from 1898 incorporated in the play’s music as a matter of expediency. It is a charming salon-esque piece played with real finesse by the orchestra’s leader Melina Mandozzi. There is more than a hint of the early Delius works for violin and orchestra, particularly the Suite for Violin and Orchestra but I have no idea if Halvorsen could have heard or been influenced by the earlier work. As for the other five movements in the authorised suite they are as picturesque and appealing as you might ever wish to hear. Local colour is added by the integration into the score of an important part for a Hardanger fiddle - Norway’s unique folk violin. Apparently its appearance in a symphonic score was the first time this had been done. Grieg also used the Hardanger in his Peer Gynt score but there they are folk interpolations into an orchestral score. The player here is Hardanger expert Ragnhild Hemsing and the liner is further enhanced by a brief contribution from her explaining a little about the Hardanger tradition as well as pictures of Hardanger fiddles. As a piece this is the most obviously folk-influenced and you can hear the Bergen strings playing with the easy familiarity for the idiom that other orchestras would struggle to achieve. Indeed the whole orchestra bubbles with good humour and bucolic wit.
The shortest work on the disc is another gem. Again, clearly taking his model from Grieg’s arrangements for strings - the Elegiac Melodies - Halvorsen arranged the traditional melody The Wedding of Ravens in the Grove of the Crows. Here Halvorsen’s skills as an arranger, orchestrator, and transcriber are clearly displayed. He chooses a very simple theme-and-variations form which subtly alters the bed on which this very beautiful melody lies. It is the kind of piece perfect for string orchestras looking to get away from the inevitable Holberg Suite again. Just time to mention the musical bon-bon Bryllupsmarsch (wedding march) which is the only piece in this programme to make use of the excellent violin playing of Marianne Thorsen. Recording dates indicate that this was taken from the same sessions as Volume 2 but such is the consistency of this series that it makes for a enjoyable filler in the best sense.
Enjoyment is the key word too for the final item - Bergensiana - Rococo Variations. If proof were needed how superior this performance is to earlier ones this piece provides it. In the Simax performance I have to say it barely registered on my consciousness at all even though it featured the same orchestra. Here it emerges as an orchestral showpiece of the highest order. It is performed annually by this orchestra to open the Bergen International Festival so it is a work they have in their bones - and doesn't it show. This is a brilliant concoction by Halvorsen consisting of a theme and six variations lasting little more than ten minutes. Good humour is the order of the day with Halvorsen shamelessly - and quite deliberately I'm sure - parodying everything from Brahms' Academic Festival Overture to Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations. Add to that some striking pre-echoes of Britten's Young Person's Guide and a theme un-nervingly like 'My Darling Clementine'. The bibulous bassoon variation with grunting basses and a nonchalant xylophone is genuinely entertaining as well as quite brilliantly played. Following on from this is a mandolin waltz-serenade of delightful banality which Halvorsen skilfully follows with the emotional heart of the work - a beautifully lyrical string-led song without words. As well as showcasing the individual brilliance of the orchestra this piece demonstrates just how fine the Chandos engineering is as well as the superb concert hall acoustics. Again, it has to be said that Järvi steers an ideal path between the witty and the rhetorical that this piece needs. What a great end to a disc that will bring pleasure to many.
Would I say any of this music is 'great'? - probably not - but it does delight by the sheer quality of its craftsmanship and ear-tickling melodies. Given that there are no more Halvorsen Symphonies to provide a backbone to further volumes I hope Chandos will continue to explore incidental music scores. If you have not yet tried this series I would suggest this is the best place to start full to the brim as it is with utterly beguiling music, but I would be willing to bet that if you like what you hear volumes 1 and 2 will be added to your collection soon!