Johan SVENDSEN (1840-1911)

Orchestral Works - Volume 1
Karneval in Paris Op.9 (1872) [12:01]
Romeo and Juliet Op.18 (1876) [10:01]
Fest-Polonaise Op.12 (1873) [10:41]
Romanze Op.26 (1881) [7:35] ¹
Träume arr. from Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder (1872) [3:44]
Zorahayda Op.11 (1874 rev 1879) [11:31]
Last year I was Herding Mountain Goats (I Fjol gjætt’e Gjeitinn) (1874) [3:50]
The Girl’s Sunday on the Mountain Pasture (Sæterjentens Søndag) arr of Ole Bull’s 1849 melody (1873) [2:41]
Norwegian Rhapsodies Nos.1 Op.17 (1876) [7:46] and 2 Op.19 (1876) [9:15]
Marianne Thorsen (violin) ¹
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. August and September 2009 and August 2010, Grieghallen, Bergen
CHANDOS CHAN 10693 [80:03]

Svendsen is undergoing a mini-renaissance at the moment. CPO and Naxos have devoted some volumes to his symphonic and orchestral compositions, and now Chandos comes along with the first volume (of four) in its orchestral series.

One thing for which Svendsen has always been saluted is his masterful orchestration. It’s rich but not upholstered, characterful without being garish. In most respects it’s perfectly suited to his material. That in the first volume is well selected to show the variety of source material available to him, and almost everything was written in the 1870s, around the time when the composer was in his mid 30s.

Karneval in Paris is genial and high-spirited. Looking at the score over the composer’s shoulder a friend said to him; ‘It looks amusing’ and sauntered off. Indeed, it is amusing in its capricious and romantic moments, and the friend – Richard Wagner, no less – was perfectly right. Svendsen always paces his paragraphs with perception, and here, as elsewhere, one feels the music just the perfect length. I would only add that the work seems to me more Carnival than Parisian. Efficient, taut but not especially emotive Romeo and Juliet demonstrates Svendsen’s professional skills. It doesn’t draw out much in the way of sub-surface depths but is assuredly competent. A wholly different work is the Fest-Polonaise of 1873. This is a big, swaggering affair, brassy and percussion-rich with an eye for lissom decorative writing too.

Another of his bigger ten-minute studies is Zorahayda derived from a story by Washington Irving on a Moorish theme. This is one of Svenden’s ‘legendary’ topics, and his wistful, superbly illustrative response is one of the finest things here. There’s a role for solo violin, and plenty of fertile and imaginative colour and atmosphere. Neeme Järvi directs with apt sympathy. I wonder if anyone remembers the old LP recording of this made by Grüner-Higge with the Oslo Philharmonic?

The two Norwegian Rhapsodies are by turn bucolic, avuncular and stirring – and the leisurely central panel of the Second is especially lovely. Träume is arranged from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder whilst The Girl’s Sunday on the Mountain Pasture (Sæterjentens Søndag) is a newly harmonised version of an original by Ole Bull. Another tiny example of the warmth of his timbral imagination comes in the shape of the folk song Last year I was Herding Mountain Goats (I Fjol gjætt’e Gjeitinn).

Thus several facets of Svendsen’s art can be appreciated here; legend, tone poem, orchestrations, folksongs, rhapsodies, and a juicy polonaise. The recordings bloom very nicely and the Bergen orchestra plays with polish and enthusiasm. These are pretty much front-runners now, but the historically minded should still hang on to that Odd Grüner-Hegge disc as well as Øivin Fjeldstad’s Oslo recordings of Svendsen’s music. Outclassed sonically, they still rank high in the discography, but CD-minded listeners will be delighted with the new Chandos series.

Jonathan Woolf

CD-minded listeners will be delighted with this new Chandos series.