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Johan SVENDSEN (1840-1911)
Orchestral Works - Volume 3
Norwegian Artists’ Carnival, Op.14 (1874) [6:44]
Violin Concerto in A major, Op.6 (1870) [28:14]
Two Icelandic Melodies arranged for string orchestra (1874) [5:17]
Symphony No.1 in D major, Op.4 (1866) [33:28]
Marianne Thorsen (violin)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. August 2012, Grieghallen, Bergen
CHANDOS CHAN 10766 [74:10]

An extensive Svendsen series (vol. 1; vol. 2), excellently recorded as one has come to expect from Chandos, is surely to be welcomed. The third volume contains two of his major works; the First Symphony and the Violin Concerto.
 
The Concerto dates from 1870, the same year in which he wrote his compact Cello Concerto. It was written in Paris but finished in Leipzig and dedicated to Ferdinand David. The name of the dedicatee might suggest an earlier stylistic provenance, given David’s role in the Leipzig school, and not least his friendship with Mendelssohn. Indeed Svendsen’s concerto is largely post-Schumannesque in orientation and rather more diverting than history has credited. It’s been a source of puzzlement to me for some years why more soloists, especially Scandinavian soloists, don’t take up the work. So it’s good news that Marianne Thorsen brings her sensitive, chamber-scaled (but not un-soloistic) skill to bear on it. She’s especially good at its more introspective moments, at some daring diminuendos and moments of heightened but chaste, almost elfin expression in the opening movement. She reserves greatest tonal weight for passages such as the intensely expressive passage around 5:50 in this movement and phrases with breadth and much increased vibrato usage. The hymnal warmth of the slow movement and fine exchanges with orchestral principals are alike well realised, with Neeme Järvi ensuring secure chording, and well blended orchestral choirs. Neither soloist nor conductor overlooks the explosive element embedded in the Andante. The elegant, terpsichorean finale goes very well too, with textures well presented and a sense of movement always to the fore. I’ve not heard Arve Tellefsen’s recording on NKF (CD 50010-2), but I do know Kai Laursen’s old mono recording with Carl von Garaguly conducting the South Jutland Symphony back in 1968 [Danacord DACOCD 463]. It’s a perfectly serviceable recording, though obviously outstripped technically by the Chandos newcomer in all technical ways. However, I do not swerve in my admiration for Laursen and Garaguly; their opening is the more impassioned, and Laursen plays with greater romantic declamation than Thorsen.
 
The third volume in this series offers smaller pieces that might have escaped listeners. The Norwegian Artists’ Carnival, Op.14 is nevertheless one of his most popular, charmingly and cleverly orchestrated as ever. Svendsen utilises two tunes, contrasting the cold North with the warm South. The result is seven minutes of delightful ingratiation. I didn’t know the Two Icelandic Melodies but they’re beautifully arranged and imbued with quietly spoken folkloric intensity.
 
Which leaves the First Symphony, composed in 1866 and thus the prentice work in this disc. Critics have run hot and cold (usually the latter) over the First Symphony, whereas they tend to be happier with the Second. I’ve always rather liked the confidence with which Svendsen goes so briskly to work - a real no-nonsense Molto allegro gets things underway. His ebullience is a tonic. There is also something proto-Elgarian about the Andante; maybe Schumann and a shared French orchestral interest is the clue: a nexus of the Franco-German. Certainly you would do well to deny glimmerings of the proto-Tchaikovskian balletic in the scherzo - a very able, characterful affair. The only movement that fails to convince is the finale and Svendsen is hardly the only composer to fail the finale problem. He huffs and puffs but the elements don’t really come together. Bluster, in the main. Still, I would say much of the symphony is likeable and more than that, interesting.
 
There have been a number of recordings of the Symphony. Järvi himself recorded it in Gothenburg, coupled with Symphony No.2 and the Two Swedish Folk-Melodies for BIS [CD347]. Both symphonies can also be found on Naxos [8.553898 with Bjarte Engeset and the Bournemouth Symphony], on EMI with Jansons and on Warner Apex 0927 40621-2 [Norwegian Radio Orchestra and Ari Rasilainen] and in a previous Chandos release [CHAN 9932] with the excellent Danish National Radio Symphony under Thomas Dausgaard. Terje Mikkelsen has also recorded it with the Latvian National Symphony on La Vergen 260741, though I’ve never come across it.
 
Clearly the intention of the Chandos series is to split the symphonies and to offer mixed programming as exemplified by this latest release. If that introduces more people to the Violin Concerto I’ll go with that. The sonics of these Bergen performances are about as good as Svendsen has yet received and the performances are fine. Just don’t forget Laursen in the Concerto.
 
Jonathan Woolf 

See also review by Byzantion