May 12, 2011


Nielsen: Symphony No. 3 (“Sinfonia Espansiva”), with alternative version of the “Andante pastorale”; Silkesko over gylden laest; Saenk kun dit hoved; Helios Overture; Paraphrase on “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Eva Hess-Thaysen, soprano; Jan Lund, tenor; Nicholas Cox, clarinet; Kevin Price, trombone; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Douglas Bostock. Scandinavian Classics. $9.99.

Johan Halvorsen: Orchestral Works, Volume 3—Symphony No. 3; Black Swans; Wedding March; Wedding of Ravens in the Grove of the Crows; Fossegrimen—Dramatic Suite for Orchestra; Bergensiana—Rococo Variations on an Old Melody from Bergen. Ragnhild Hemsing, Hardanger fiddle; Marianne Thorsen, violin; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $18.99.

     Nielsen’s Third Symphony is not his strangest – that would be his Sixth – but it can be his most problematic. The relative infrequency with which it is performed is due both to its calling for soprano and tenor voices – which sing wordlessly, and only in the slow movement – and to its finale, which can be quite a letdown after the first three movements, often landing with something of an aural thud. Douglas Bostock’s new recording (actually a re-release of a CD from 2002) solves the two problems neatly, in part by including several other Nielsen vocal works and in part by tying the finale more effectively to the rest of the symphony than many other performances do. This is a broadly conceived reading, especially in the opening Andante espansivo (which gives the symphony its title), but it moves well and gives Nielsen’s elegant orchestration plenty of opportunities to shine. An interesting addition is the alternative version of the second movement, Andante pastorale, in which a trombone replaces the wordless vocalists. The other major work on this CD is the Helios Overture, a bright and brilliant musical tracing of the sun’s path from dawn to dusk, played with fervor and its own form of expansiveness that is impressive and highly effective. The remaining three works are short fillers: the orchestral Paraphrase on “Nearer, My God, to Thee”; the early (1892) song for tenor, Silkesko over gylden laest (“Silken Shoe on Golden Last”); and the first-ever recording of the version for soprano and orchestra of the 1903 song, Saenk kun dit hoved (“Lower Your Head, You Flower”). These are minor bits of Nielseniana, rarely heard in concert, and therefore all the more worthwhile to have in recorded form.

     Norway’s Johan Halvorsen was a close contemporary of Denmark’s Nielsen, living from 1864 to 1935 (Nielsen’s dates are 1865-1931). But Halvorsen’s symphonies, like the rest of his music, have never caught on in the way that many of Nielsen’s works have. Halvorsen’s Symphony No. 3, which anchors the third volume of Chandos’ excellent survey of the composer’s orchestral music, is quite unlike Nielsen’s Third. It was written considerably later (Nielsen’s Third dates from 1910-11, Halvorsen’s Third from 1928) and includes what the composer called “many peculiar things,” by which he may have been referring to the unusual structure of the first movement or to the work’s passing references to Grieg, Sibelius, Puccini and even Rachmaninoff. The symphony has some striking instrumental effects, one of the most prominent of which is not without controversy: Halvorsen initially included a glockenspiel in the finale, and it is used by Neeme Järvi in this recording, but in fact the composer struck it out by the time the symphony was performed, much as Mahler withdrew the third hammer blow from his Sixth Symphony earlier in the century. The instrument’s effect is striking and quite attractive, but whether Halvorsen actually wanted it or not is an unanswered and unanswerable question. In any case, Järvi conducts the work with balance, drive and understanding – this is a piece that is well worth hearing. So is the longest work on this CD, Fossegrimen—Dramatic Suite for Orchestra, which among other things includes prominent use of a Hardanger fiddle, a traditional Norwegian stringed instrument that looks like a violin but has eight or nine strings rather than four. Halvorsen himself played the instrument at the première of the play Fossegrimen in 1905; the suite heard on this disc is drawn from his incidental music for the stage work. The title is the name of Norway’s mythical music master of underground creatures, who, legend has it, gave a famed Norwegian fiddler his striking abilities (much as the Devil was once said to have given Paganini his tremendous virtuosity). The suite is, unsurprisingly, episodic, but there is much interesting music here, with a strong sense of rhythm and fine orchestration, and Ragnhild Hemsing plays her Hardanger fiddle with great style and understanding. The much shorter Bergensiana is an attractive piece, too: it is a set of variations on a song regarded as Bergen’s city anthem but in reality most likely a composition by Jean-Baptiste Lully. In any case, Halvorsen here creates old-fashioned variations with some newfangled instruments, such as the xylophone – a pleasing mixture. Among the shorter works here, the most interesting is Black Swans, which Halvorsen wrote under a pseudonym: it is a somewhat Impressionistic work, created at a time when that musical style was decidedly frowned upon in Norway. Wedding March, on the other hand, is a straightforward piece, based on a folk tune, with a prominent violin part; and Wedding of Ravens in the Grove of the Crows is also based on a folk melody – one that Grieg used as well, making a piano arrangement. The Chandos survey of Halvorsen has turned up some remarkably attractive music, raising the question of why this composer has remained largely neglected for so many years. Perhaps, with Järvi’s advocacy, that neglect may be coming to an end.

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