September 10, 2009


Johan Svendsen: Norwegian Rhapsodies Nos. 1-4; Romeo and Juliet; Zorahayda. South Jutland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bjarte Engeset. Naxos. $8.99.

Liszt: Organ Works, Volume 1. Martin Haselböck, organ. NCA. $24.99 (SACD).

     The influence of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies was widespread, extending even as far as Norway, where Johan Svendsen (1840-1911) used them as a model for four Norwegian Rhapsodies that he wrote in 1876 and 1877. Liszt’s works are “Hungarian” in only a very general sense – many of the supposed folk tunes were actually created by the composer himself in what he thought was the style of Gypsy music – but Svendsen made a real effort to incorporate Norwegian folksong into his works. The first rhapsody features a woodwind tune that was also used by Grieg in the third of his Norwegian Dances. The second combines syncopation, an elegiac theme, some rough good humor and an interesting use of muted strings. The third is distinguished by a timpani transition between its first and second themes. And the fourth features a theme drawn from the Hardanger fiddle music of southern Norway. All the pieces are well orchestrated and carefully constructed; and the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra, although not the smoothest-sounding of ensembles, plays them with verve and sensitivity under Bjarte Engeset’s knowing direction. The CD also includes two well-put-together tone poems, Romeo and Juliet (the Norwegian title is Romeo og Julie) of 1876 (four years before Tchaikovsky’s far more famous work attained its final form) and Zorahayda of 1874. Svendsen’s Romeo and Juliet contrasts a lively theme with an oboe melody perhaps intended to represent love, but sounding more plaintive than passionate. The coda is subdued rather than tragic and dramatic – a touch lacking in emotional punch, although well written. Zorahayda is more effective. It is based on a Washington Irving story about the love of a Moorish princess for a Christian knight. Strings and horn calls are heard at both the start and the end; in between, there is an attractive passage for solo violin with pizzicato accompaniment, and some fine contrast of woodwinds with strings. There is a sense of resignation at the conclusion here, much as in Svendsen’s Romeo and Juliet, but in this case – perhaps because the underlying story is less well known – the ending seems to flow more organically from what has gone before.

     As famous as Liszt was and is for his Hungarian Rhapsodies, tone poems and piano music, he is much less noted as a composer for organ. But he created a substantial body of work for the instrument, ranging from religiously themed pieces (for which the organ would be considered appropriate) to entirely secular virtuoso showpieces (not what one would typically expect of organ music). Martin Haselböck’s first volume of Liszt’s organ music combines both types of works, offering five pieces from different times in Liszt’s life – and with very different intentions. The longest work here is the Fantasy and Fugue on the Choral “Ad Nos, Ad Salutarem Undam” from the Opera “Le Prophète” by Meyerbeer, which lasts nearly half an hour and is monumentally conceived in every way. Despite the religious nature of the underlying material, Liszt’s work is wholly secular, and it generated considerable controversy in his own time as a result. The more forward-looking critics and audience members identified this piece, written in 1850, as a bridge to the future of organ music, while conservatives bemoaned the profanation of an instrument designed to enhance religious sentiment. Haselböck’s performance is a grand one, giving the work its full due and allowing it to flow forth with a scope that is truly remarkable. The interplay and conflict between old-school polyphony and the virtuosity of Liszt’s time set up tensions within the work that lean, in the end, more toward the old-fashioned side – but clearly point the way ahead.

     The other works on Haselböck’s recording are altogether more modest. Andante Religioso (1857-9), one of Liszt’s better-known organ pieces, is a transcription of a movement from the Berg Symphony, his first symphonic poem. Ave Maria I (1853-after 1856) is one of four musical versions that Liszt wrote on the Ave Maria text. Introduction to the Legend of Saint Elisabeth (1862-5) was composed in connection with an oratorio inspired by religious frescoes. And the awkwardly titled Otto Nicolai: Church Festival Overture on the Choral “Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott,” Op. 31, for Organ or Pedal Piano (1844-52) is an adaptation of an adaptation, being Liszt’s version of Nicolai’s version of an overture based on the well-known hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” These are impressive works in their own way – although the extent of Liszt’s involvement with a couple of them is not entirely clear (other composers and performers appear to have had a hand in some of the arrangements). In any case, none of these pieces stakes out the sort of new territory for the organ toward which Liszt started to move with his fantasy and fugue drawn from Meyerbeer’s opera. Haselböck’s balanced, intelligent performances show that he understands Liszt’s organ works very well indeed. Hopefully later volumes in this series will continue to show both the new directions in which Liszt moved and the old ways to which he continued to pay homage.

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