November 11, 2010


Sibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3. New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen. Naxos. $8.99.

Nielsen: Symphonies Nos. 2 (“The Four Temperaments”) and 5. Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Douglas Bostock. Scandinavian Classics. $12.99.

Halvorsen: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Symphony No. 2 (“Fatum”); Suite ancienne; Three Norwegian Dances; Air norvegien; Chant de la Veslemöy. Marianne Thorsen, violin; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $18.99.

Bull: Works for Violin; Grieg: Gavotte; Menuet. Arve Tellefsen, violin; Trondheim Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eivind Aadland; Håvard Gimse, piano. Simax Classics. $18.99.

     Jean Sibelius in Finland, Carl Nielsen in Denmark, Johan Halvorsen and Ole Bull in Norway – among them, they created some of Scandinavia’s grandest and most impressive Romantic and post-Romantic music, for all that Halvorsen and Bull remain much less known than their contemporaries. Pietari Inkinen clearly has a strong affinity for Sibelius and a real understanding of the composer’s symphonic progress. Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 is as Romantic as they come, with grand, sweeping themes redolent of Scandinavia but ultimately subsumed within a structure entirely recognizable as dating to the days of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Mahler. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra does not have quite the warmth and heft in the strings that this symphony ideally requires, but it makes up for that with precision in the details of the work that highlights the skill Sibelius already brought to orchestration in this symphony. Inkinen in fact relies on details – a pizzicato here, a touch of the harp there (the latter being especially effective in the third movement) – to give this performance its very high quality. Yet he brings grand sweep to the work as well, especially in the fantasia-like finale. It is an altogether winning performance – and contrasts strongly with Inkinen’s equally effective reading of Symphony No. 3. This three-movement work shows considerably more of Sibelius’ mature style, including unusual harmonies and odd key choices (the central movement is in G-sharp minor). Striding rhythms, fragmented textures, tight organization, and a difficult-to-pin-down formal structure are characteristics of this symphony, which Inkinen allows to unfold naturally through well-chosen tempos and, again, careful attention to details of orchestration. Shorter than his first symphony and more difficult to grasp, Sibelius’ Third here comes across here as something of a woodland idyll, sometimes darkly atmospheric and sometimes brightly triumphant. Inkinen is particularly effective in showing this as a symphony of considerable contrasts, delicate in some parts and broadly expansive in others.

     Nielsen’s Symphony No. 2 dates to about the same turn-of-the-20th-century period as Sibelius’ First and Third, but its use of rhythm, harmony and structure is completely different. The symphony is called “The Four Temperaments” because of its musical portrayal of the four “humours” that were once thought to define human personality (choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine). From its intense, striding opening, the symphony proclaims itself strong and driven – at least in the first movement. For this is a work united more by ideas than by structure. It follows traditional symphonic style, but only within the boundaries of portrayal of Nielsen’s extramusical theme. Thus, the “scherzo” of the second movement is more of an intermezzo, being gently flowing – the main theme is quite beautiful – and quite short, while the slow third movement is the longest of the four and explores melancholy to the point of being overdone. Douglas Bostock and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra have a really fine sense of what makes this symphony tick, never downplaying its deliberate superficialities and never overplaying its seriousness. From the strongly propulsive first movement to the cheerful and brash finale, everything is at the service of the composer’s program in this most programmatic of Nielsen’s symphonies – and the episodic nature of the whole work comes through as a strength rather than a weakness. As on the Sibelius disc, the other symphony here is a very strong contrast. Nielsen’s Fifth dates to 1921 and is a complex and in some ways peculiar work, lacking a subtitle and containing some highly unusual instrumentation – notably an extremely dramatic use of the side drum (looking ahead to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad”). Divided into two parts that progress from relative peacefulness to a level of intense drama that listeners will likely connect to the end of World War I three years earlier (although Nielsen never made that connection explicit), this symphony requires raw power and a willingness to have the orchestra bring forth some sounds that border on ugliness – which Bostock is unwilling to do, with the result that the performance is less craggy and disturbing than it could be. But it is very well played, and the instrumental emphases, the combinations and contrasts among and within sections, come through very well, giving this reading considerable stature. It is easy to admire Nielsen’s Fifth, but also easy to understand why this very thoughtful and often difficult work has never proved particularly popular in the concert hall.

     It is not so easy to understand the near-total neglect of Halvorsen’s very well-made music, although it is fairly simple to understand why his three symphonies are rarely performed: their editions are, not to mince words, a mess, and it requires considerable work to prepare them to be played. Halvorsen was himself a conductor – and may have worked in his concerts from his own manuscripts – but unlike Mahler, who left super-meticulous notes for other conductors, Halvorsen simply jotted down remarks that as often as not contradicted other comments or were at variance with the printed score. The second volume of Chandos’ very fine Halvorsen series includes pianist/conductor Jørn Fossheim’s edition of Symphony No. 2, which turns out to be a highly interesting work. Originally written just three years after Nielsen’s Fifth, then revised in 1928, this symphony was labeled “Fatum” by the composer because of its use of an opening “fate” theme that appears, in one form or another, in all four movements. This structure invites comparison with Beethoven’s Fifth and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, which is unfortunate, because Halvorsen’s approach is neither as tightly knit as in the first work nor as expansive and broad as in the second. The Halvorsen symphony is very well constructed and has some genuinely unusual touches, such as the transformation of the dark “fate” motif into a bright and merry main theme for the third movement, which is labeled Intermezzo. Although the symphony is not as gripping or immediately appealing as other “fate” works, it is solidly built and has a strong cyclic character that provides a satisfying conclusion. Also quite satisfying is Halvorsen’s Suite ancienne, which is dedicated to the memory of Ludvig Holberg and will therefore inevitably be compared with Grieg’s Holberg Suite. In fact, Halvorsen’s work was composed as a series of entr’actes for a Holberg play and subsequently turned into a suite by the composer. There are some deliberate parallels with Grieg’s work – Halvorsen’s Sarabande is designed as a tribute to Grieg’s – but Halvorsen’s suite has its own characteristic style, and is a pleasant and effective melding of old and more modern compositional techniques. This CD also includes three Halvorsen pieces for violin and orchestra (Halvorsen was a violinist as well as a conductor). The Three Norwegian Dances are effectively folklike, using actual folk music in their outer sections and original melodies in their contrasting middle portions. Air norvegien is a virtuoso showpiece that, again, has a strong folk-music flavor. And Chant de la Veslemöy is a miniature, a musical portrait of a young psychic girl depicted in a once-popular cycle of poems. Marianne Thorsen plays all these works with skill and feeling, and this CD as a whole is enough to make a listener eager to hear more of Halvorsen’s music while wondering why at least some of it has not attained the popularity of the works of other Scandinavian composers.

     It is somewhat easier to comprehend the lack of attention given to the 70-odd surviving works by Ole Bull (1810-1880). Bull was primarily a violinist, not a composer, and is best known today for his influence on others – primarily Grieg. Bull’s brother was married to Grieg’s aunt, and when Bull met young Edvard – who was then just 15 – in 1858, he recognized Edvard’s talent and persuaded his parents to send him to Leipzig for instruction, thus launching Grieg’s career. Bull made his mark with improvisations, few of which were written down. The compositions that have come down to today are mainly short-form display pieces designed to show off Bull’s remarkable technique, which won high praise from Robert Schumann and many others. The sampling of Bull’s works for violin and orchestra and violin and piano, as played by Arve Tellefsen, shows Bull to be accomplished in a wide variety of brief forms (the pieces range in length from one minute to 10) and able to create accompaniments that support and enhance the sound of the violin. Bull’s most famous piece, “The Herd-Girl’s Sunday,” is of course here. Beyond that work, the most interesting thing about these varied miniatures is how many are taken at slow tempos and have a darker, melancholy cast. One (also well known, as Bull’s works go) is actually called La Mélancolie, and others are marked “Adagio Religioso,” “Adagio Sostenuto” (the slow movement from Bull’s Violin Concerto in E minor), “Andante Maestoso,” “Andante Cantabile,” and simply “Cantabile.” Bull was certainly capable of producing more-traditional showy pieces, such as the second part of “Cantabile doloroso e Rondo giocoso,” but it is clear that his predilection was for the violin’s warmer and darker tones. The disc also includes two works by Grieg that were played in the only concert featuring both Grieg and Bull, in 1873. These short Grieg pieces are programmed in the middle of the CD, between the Bull works with orchestra or chamber group and those with piano. Tellefsen plays all this music quite well, producing an interesting and unusual disc that lovers of the Romantic violin, and of Scandinavian music, will find highly attractive.

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