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Johan HALVORSEN (1864-1936)
Orchestral works
Marianne Thorsen and Melina Mandozzi (violins), Ragnild Hemsing (Hardanger fiddle), Ilze Klave (viola)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
rec. Grieghallen, Bergen, 2009-11
CHANDOS CHAN10834 [4 CDs: 306:03]

This handsomely presented box gathers together four CDs all of which have been previously issued and glowingly reviewed on this site (see below). Although the individual discs are enclosed in cardboard sleeves, the original booklets are included in the form in which they were individually published. This means that occasionally references are made to future events which are now in the past. At the time that the discs were originally issued Halvorsen had begun to emerge from the category of ‘one-hit composers’ to which he had previously been consigned. Nevertheless only the Entry March of the Boyars was at all well-known, and two of the items here are described as world premičre recordings. In fact this set is very far from being a complete edition of Halvorsen’s music for orchestra. There is a vast amount of incidental music written for various productions during the composer’s tenure as musical director of the National Theatre in Kristiania (later Oslo) from which we are given substantial selections here.

The centrepiece here comprises the three symphonies that Halvorsen wrote towards the end of career, and which he consciously designed as testimony to his serious intentions as a composer. These are not new to the catalogues, as Ole Kristian Ruud set down a complete cycle of the symphonies in the 1980s for the Simax label with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra. Fine as those performances were, it has to be said that Neeme Järvi here gives more dramatic and gutsy readings, aided by the more resonant recording quality that Chandos provides. While Ruud’s cycle provided a worthy representation of Halvorsen’s intentions, Järvi here manages to give the music more weight and punch and the First Symphony in particular provides a seriousness of approach that gives real stature to the writing. It cannot be claimed that Halvorsen’s symphonies are particularly original in their approach to the form – they could well have been written thirty years earlier – and they pale in comparison to the two still under-rated symphonies of his fellow-Norwegian Svendsen. However, they are far from inconsiderable and they benefit from Järvi’s earnestness of approach. These scores do not play themselves – they place considerable strain on the technique of the players – and a recent broadcast of the Fatum Symphony (No 2) on Radio 3 — given again by the Trondheim orchestra but this time conducted by Josep Caballé-Domenesch — demonstrates the need for the committed and vigorous playing that we encounter here.

Simax also provided a complete recording of the incidental music to Fossegrimen issued in 2002, and here the advantage is somewhat on the other foot since Terje Mikkelsen and the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra included the vocal items from the score as well as providing a coupling of Norway’s greeting to Theodore Roosevelt, a substantial score which is missing from this Chandos box. Mikkelsen had also provided an earlier recording in 1999 (again for Simax) of Halvorsen’s incidental music for Gurre, Askaladden and The merchant of Venice (vol.1 vol.2). The first of these makes an interesting contrast to Schoenberg’s treatment of the same subject in his Gürrelieder. Apart from these issues, however, most of the other items included in this Chandos box do not have rivals in the current catalogues and must therefore be welcomed in their own right. I should also add that Ruud set down a complete set of all four of the earlier Norwegian Rhapsodies on a Simax CD in 1999, quite apart from the two later works with the same title that are included in this collection.

It has to be said, however, that much of Halvorsen’s music included here is much more in the manner of the ubiquitous Entry March of the Boyars than that of the symphonies. It verges on the fringes of ‘light music’ – rather as if Elgar had confined his compositional activities to works like Salut d’amour and not his more substantial works in the fields of symphony, concerto and choral music. As previous reviewers on this site have indicated, the results are highly pleasurable and this is certainly not music that deserves neglect. That said, one gains the impression that many of these pieces were written for commercial reasons rather than any deeper impulse, although that is by no mean intended as a criticism.

Those previous reviewers have devoted much space on this site to descriptions of the music. I do not propose to repeat their remarks here especially since I can find no reasons to disagree with their judgements. Marianne Thorsen in her many contributions to the works for solo violin and orchestra is a model of delicacy and emotional commitment. She also plays the solo in the suite from Fossegrimen where Arve Moen Bergset on the Mikkelsen complete recording took on the violin part as well as that for the contrasted Hardanger fiddle. In the Passacaglia, based initially on a set of variations on a theme by Handel, she is replaced by the leader of the orchestra in what is Halvorsen’s only work to be the subject of multiple recordings in the current catalogue. Here she is joined by Ilze Klave in a piece of chamber music which sits slightly oddly in the company of the orchestral works. Among the twenty-one alternatives currently listed can be found soloists of the stature of Heifetz, Zukerman, Kennedy and Perlman.

I note that the symphonies here are shown as being edited by Jřrn Fossheim. In the case of the Third Symphony Řyvin Dybsand’s booklet notes describe Järvi’s restoration of a glockenspiel part that the composer may have deleted. Other than this instance I cannot detect any really significant differences from the Ruud performances on Simax. Dybsand’s notes suggest that there are also many other misprints corrected here which led him to state that the scores “were never properly proof-read”. The only other recording of any of this music that I can currently find comes in a selection of violin works on a 2000 Naxos collection which includes the two later Norwegian Rhapsodies as well as Halvorsen’s orchestration of Ole Bull’s La mélancholie. Incidentally, Halvorsen’s command of the orchestra, about which Grieg commented favourably, is one of his great strengths even though the composer himself seems to have been nervous about it.

For those like myself who missed the original Chandos issues, this box is a most valuable survey of what probably constitutes as much of Halvorsen’s orchestral music as they will need to hear. The symphonies in particular reveal themselves as works of considerable merit. The playing of the Bergen orchestra and the recording quality are of the highest standard. Those who wish to explore further in this territory will wish to acquire the Simax recordings of the full Fossegrimen score and – more particularly – the four earlier Norwegian Rhapsodies, even though they may involve a degree of duplication.
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey


Previous reviews (original releases)
Volume 1 (CHAN10584): David Barker ~~ Arthur Baker
Volume 2 (CHAN10614): Nick Barnard ~~ David Barker
Volume 3 (CHAN10664): Nick Barnard
Volume 4 (CHAN10710): Jonathan Woolf

Disc contents
CD 1 [76.48]
Entry March of the Boyars (1895) [4.30]
Andante religioso (1899) [5.57]
Mascarade (1922): Suite [27.54]
La Mélancholie (arrangement of Ole Bull) [2.28]
Symphony No 1 in C minor (1923) [35.35]

CD 2 [75.50]
Suite ancienne, Op.31a (1911) [25.23]
Three Norwegian Dances (1931) [10.40]
Air norvégien, Op.7 (1903) [7.48]
Veslemoy’s Song (1899) [3.30]
Symphony No 2 in D minor (1924) ‘Fatum’ [27.58]

CD 3 [80.32]
Symphony No 3 in C (1929) [26.48]
Black swans (1921) [4.54]
Wedding March, Op.32/1 (1912) [4.13]
Wedding of Ravens in the Grove of the Crows (1896) [3.59]
Fossegrimen, Op.21 (1905): Suite including ‘Danse visionaire’ [29.49]
Bergensiana (1921) [10.17]

CD 4 [72.53]
Rhapsodie norvégienne No 1 (1920) [10.41]
Rhapsodie norvégienne No 2 (1920) [11.49]
Norwegian Bridal Procession (orchestration of Grieg) (1902) [3.29]
Passacaglia, Op.20/2 (1894) [7.10]
Queen Tamara (1904): Dance scene [4.21]
The King, Op.19 (1902): Symphonic intermezzo [8.27]
Norwegian Festival Overture (1899) [7.59]
Norwegian Fairy Tale Pictures (1933) [18.10]