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Eyvind ALNĘS (1872-1932)
Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op.7 (1899) [41.18]
Symphony No 2 in D, Op.43 (1924) [36.56]
Latvian National Symphony Orchestra/Terje Mikkelsen
rec. Reforma Baznika Riga, 31 July and 1 August 2009
STERLING CDS 1084-2 SACD [77.14]

The representation of Norwegian composer Eyvind Alnęs on disc has hitherto been confined almost entirely to his songs and piano music, on which his reputation (such as it is) almost entirely rests. But these two symphonies, one from each end of his career, show that he had much to contribute in other fields as well. Neither ever really established themselves – the First seems to have received only two public performances, and the Second only four, none of them outside Scandinavia – and these recordings therefore serve not so much to revive unjustly forgotten scores as to bring to our attention two major works that never seem even to have got far off the drawing board. A solitary revival of the Second in 1947 (after the composer’s death) received at best a generally lukewarm reception; but, as I hope to explain, both works deserve much better than that.

It is true that originality is not one of the great strengths of Alnęs’s early First Symphony, with some of the material of the first movement particularly close in thematic content and sound to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth which clearly served as a model for its construction. But the Adagio second movement is something else again, a slow and sombre woodwind beginning developing into a searingly emotional climax which packs a real punch. The intermezzo-like scherzo is less immediately impressive, but the finale brings the whole to a rousing conclusion; we are told that both its Leipzig premičre and its subsequent Oslo performance were well received, and it is a mystery why the work was not taken up elsewhere.

In later years Alnęs became absorbed in the writing and promotion of his songs, clearly motivated, in part, by financial concerns, and it was not until near the end of his life that he returned to symphonic form, although the booklet note suggests that he had been working on the score of the Second for some considerable time before he completed it. It certainly begins in a less dramatic fashion than the First, and the musical material is often pastoral and bucolic by turns; but then each of the movements develops in unexpected ways, showing influences from Sibelius in a manner that will bring to British listeners the symphonies of Bax and Moeran (this is not to suggest ‘influence’ but merely to give some impression of the style that Alnęs adopts). The slow movement is again a highlight in its emotional charge, and one reads with amazement that the generally sympathetic Pauline Hall, reviewing the 1947 revival described it as “somewhat static”. The following scherzo packs quite a wallop, and the finale takes a Norwegian dance and turns it into something of a nightmarish fantasy leading to a rousing ending.

Both these symphonies, therefore, are works of real substance, and I find it surprising that they do not appear to have been taken up by modern Norwegian orchestras. Ample recompense is at hand, however, in the performances here by the expert and enthusiastic Latvian National Symphony Orchestra under their Norwegian principal conductor Terje Mikkelsen. The recording too is superlative (I listened in normal stereo sound, although the recording is also available in SACD) with plenty of body and weight; and the CD, unlike some recent Sterling reissues, gives us very full measure. The booklet notes come in English and Norwegian only, but are wide-ranging and informative.

I would very much hope that this issue will prompt a new wave of performances of these symphonies, particularly the very special Second. The works themselves would clearly admit of a variety of interpretations, although any further recordings will have their work cut out to match those here. Those – and they are many – who relish the discovery of new symphonic music from the twentieth century need not hesitate. This is a disc I certainly will be playing again, many times.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Jonathan Woolf



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