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David MONRAD JOHANSEN (1888-1974)
Piano Concerto in E flat major, op.29 (1955) [27:34]
Pan op.22 (1939) [12:22]
Epigrams on Norwegian Motifs, op.31 (1963) [14:00]
Symphonic Variations and Fugue op.23 (1946) [14:21]
Oliver Triendl (piano)
Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra/Eivind Aadland
rec. 2018, Kilden Konserthus Kristiansand, Norway
CPO 555246-2 [68:23]

A few words about the composer will be of help. David Monrad Johansen was born on 8 November 1888 in the village of Vefsn in Norway, not far south of the Arctic Circle. He attended the conservatory at Kristiania, now Oslo. Further studies ensued in Berlin with Engelbert Humperdinck and then in Paris where he came under the spell of Stravinsky. His first major work was a large-scale Suite for orchestra, written in 1916. Besides composition, Monrad Johansen was a musical critic, writing for several Norwegian newspapers. He was also a competent pianist, and from 1938, he was a musical director and conductor specialising in Norwegian music.

During the war years, Monrad Johansen joined the Fascist Party and supported the puppet government run by Vidkun Quisling. He was also a member of the Nazi appointed Kulturting (Cultural Council). In the post war years, Johansen was tried for treason and was sentenced to four years hard labour. After leaving prison, his music was to some extent reappraised and he was accepted back into Norwegian artistic society. David Monrad Johansen died in Sandvika, Norway on 20 February 1974.

His early musical enthusiasm was for the music of Edvard Grieg. This led to a deep interest in Norwegian music, both modern and historical, classical, and folk. This interest may have contributed to his membership of the Kulturting; he desperately wanted to preserve his country’s music and did not want it diluted by outside influences.

Monrad Johansen’s musical catalogue is not large. It includes several orchestral and choral works, the most ‘famous’ being Voluspå op.15 (1926) written for soloists, choir, and orchestra. The text was drawn from the Edda (Old Norse Poems). There are several chamber works, choral pieces, and songs.

Stylistically, I find Monrad Johansen’s music a bit eclectic for my taste. The works presented on this CD cover a wide variety of influences. For example, the beautiful tone poem Pan seems to owe much to the impressionism of Debussy and the orchestral texturing of Richard Strauss. Pan was composed in 1939 and dedicated to the author Knut Hamsen on his 80th birthday. The music can be enjoyed without appreciation of Hamsen’s eponymous novel. Suffice it to say that this is a love story, an April to September romance and ultimately a tragedy. The composer insisted that his tone-poem did not depict events or characters: it was designed to display ‘natural forces’ the author (apparently) described so well.

Symphonic Variations and Fugue op.23 was completed in 1946, whilst Johansen was still in prison. It was revised in 1959 and again in 1964. The sound world once again looks to French and German models with a display of some neo-classical features. The structural disposition may reflect Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on themes by Hiller, op.100 and Mozart, op.132. Monrad Johansen’s music is typically austere and introspective: it is always dark-hued. This may well match the incarcerated composer’s mood at that time. However, the work does come to life in the massive double fugue at the conclusion. It is a technical triumph. According to the liner notes, the theme is based on his Christmas Song ‘Julenat’, composed in 1928. This is a fascinating score, with interesting contrapuntal and formal devices. Yet, it does not reflect the Yuletide mood in any way.

The Piano Concerto in E flat major, op.29 was composed in 1955. It is conceived in three classically balanced movements. Once again, this work strikes the listener as being a ‘synthesis’ or compendium of musical styles. Just about every composer who ever wrote a piano concerto in the 19th and 20th centuries can be discerned in these pages - including Grieg. It could be argued that as the work was to feature in a concert celebrating 40 years as a composer, Monrad Johansen had included references and allusions to his previous works and his musical loves. The opening movement balances fanfares and ‘martial effects’ with a gorgeous slow section, which is hardly a second subject. This movement does not have a decisive conclusion, but just ‘ebbs away.’ Events related both to the war and his personal circumstances may be the reason for the gloomy slow movement. That said the conclusion throws caution to the wind with a typically burlesque finale. It is a splendid concerto and is magnificently played by Oliver Triendl.

The latest work on this survey of Monrad Johansen’s music is the Epigrams on Norwegian motifs, op.31. This was completed in 1963. The inspiration for this piece is the composer’s love and appreciation of Norwegian folk music. I understand that he used genuine folk dances and songs. There is a similarity here to Grieg’s handling of comparable material. As the liner notes explain, Monrad Johansen ‘harmonized the given melodies in his characteristic manner while above all ennobling them with the tender colours and sumptuous fireworks of his detailed orchestration’. Despite each ‘motif’ being short (some lasting less than a minute) there is a consistency about this work that makes it seem more like a set of variations in search of a theme. The heart of the work is the seventh and last ‘motif.’ This deeply felt music is far removed from the preceding use of the Hardanger fiddle in the second movement. It is a concluding call ‘to inner reflection and piety.’ It was David Monrad Johansen’s last major work.

Added value with CPO CDs are the often-detailed liner notes. On the other hand, I sometimes find that they are prolix. Much searching through the text needs to be done to find the essential information. One problem is that the font is often minute. I was unable to read it without a powerful magnifying glass. Unfortunately, CPO have chosen not to provide downloads of liner notes on their webpage. Considering the easy availability of booklets from Chandos, Hyperion, Naxos, Divine Art etc. I think it is a matter that they ought to address. I am not sure if they are included in MP3 downloads from online stores. I wanted once to purchase the complete Symphonies of Egon Wellesz, but without the liner notes they are of little use to me. Even the Chandos shop which markets CPO CDs has only a selection of their ‘media’ downloads.

I was delighted to be able to review this interesting and varied CD. The performances by all concerned are first rate. The sound quality of the recording reflects CPOs acknowledged expertise. I will look forward with some anticipation to further discs of David Monrad Johansen’s music. That said, I do not think I will become an enthusiast. His style is just a little diverse for my taste: I cannot quite pin him down.

John France
 



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