SVENDSEN: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (Bjarte Engeset/ Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.553898)
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Symphonies Nos. 1 and2
The Norwegian conductor and composer Johann Svendsen was born in 1840 inChristiania, the modern Oslo, where his father was a bandmaster. He had hisearly instrumental teaching from his father, learning a number of instrumentsand writing his first compositions at the age of eleven, dances and marchesinfluenced by the repertoire of the local dance orchestra in which he hadstarted playing two years earlier. By the age of fifteen he was able to followhis father's profession and joined the army, serving as solo clarinettist inthe regimental band, although his first instrument remained the violin, whichhe played in the Norwegian Theatre orchestra and also for dancing-classes forwhich he provided arrangements of Paganini and Kreutzer studies. He was able toexperience repertoire of a different kind when, between 1857 and 1859, heplayed in a series of subscription concerts, taking lessons now in order toimprove his growing abilities. In the latter year he met the violinist andcomposer Ole Bull, whose encouragement had set Grieg and the young RikardNordraak on their careers.
At the age of twenty-one Svendsen set out to tour Sweden and NorthGermany as a violinist, but was finally obliged, during the course of a winterin L??beck, to apply to the Swedish-Norwegian consul, Leche, for assistance. Theconsul was impressed enough by Svendsen's playing to arrange a scholarship forhim from the king, allowing him to study the violin from 1863 at the LeipzigConservatory, where his teachers included the violinist Ferdinand David,Spohr's pupil Moritz Hauptmann, Ernst Friedrich Richter, soon to becomeThomascantor, and the composer and pianist Carl Reinecke. Unlike Grieg,Svendsen, as Grieg later remarked, made good use of his time in Leipzig, hisinterests gradually leaning towards composition, an interest accentuated by atemporary weakness in the left hand that prevented him for a time from playing.
With David's encouragement he was able to gain further experience in conductingand his compositions, which now included a string quartet, a quintet and anoctet, were well received. It was in Leipzig in 1867 that, now completing hisstudies, he finished the composition of his Symphony No. 1 in D major,Opus 4, a work that Grieg later described as showing scintillating genius,superb national feeling and really brilliant handling of an orchestra;everything, Grieg continued, had my fullest sympathy and forced itself on mewith power that could not be resisted. The experience led Grieg to withdraw hisown symphony from further performance and to write on the score the injunction,obeyed until relatively recently, Must never be performed.
During the summer of 1867 Svendsen travelled in northern Europe, meetingNiels W. Gade in Copenhagen and visiting Scotland, the Faroe Islands andIceland. His symphony was heard in Christiania in October, the occasion ofGrieg's overwhelmed reaction, but the general reception of the concert of hisown music that he had conducted was discouraging. He now returned once more toLeipzig for the winter, moving early the following year to Paris, where some ofhis chamber music was heard and where, with Camille Saint-Sa?½ns, he gave aperformance of the violin sonata that Grieg had written for him. Further traveltook him to Weimar, where he met Liszt and Carl Tausig, and had his Octet performedby a group of musicians that included the violinists David and Hellmesbergerand the cellist Gr??tzmacher. A return once more to Leipzig for the season of 1870-71brought a successful performance of his symphony in a Gewandhaus concert. Therewere further compositions, a violin concerto and a cello concerto, engagementto the American Sarah Levett, and in 1872 participation in the performance ofBeethoven's Ninth Symphony under the direction of Wagner at Bayreuth,marking the laying of the foundation stone of the new theatre. Wagner and hiswife Cosima, indeed, served as godparents to Svendsen's Jewish wife when shebecame a Christian, after the couple's wedding in America and subsequent returnto Leipzig.
In 1872 Svendsen returned to Christiania, at first sharing with Griegthe duties of conductor of the Norwegian Music Society concerts, for which twoyears later he undertook sole responsibility. The period was a fruitful one forSvendsen as a composer, bringing, among other orchestral works, the SymphonyNo. 2 in B flat major, Opus 15. Grieg makes it clear, however, that therewere always difficulties with the Norwegian public, which showed a distinctpreference for the display offered by visiting soloists over any moresubstantial repertoire. After 1877 he undertook various journeys. In the autumnof 1877 he conducted his new symphony in Leipzig, moving for the winter toRome. After this he spent time in London and in Paris, returning in 1880 toNorway, where he wrote what was later to prove his most famous work, the Romance.
During these years he was establishing himself not only as a composer butalso as a conductor. In 1883 he accepted the position of conductor at the RoyalDanish Opera and earned further international distinction for his work thereover the following 25 years, retiring only in 1908. His marriage had broughtsome unhappiness, which he had long confided in Grieg's wife. It was said thathis wife destroyed the manuscript of a completed third symphony, an incidentthat suggested a similar incident in Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler. In 1901his first marriage was dissolved and he then married the ballerina JulietteVilhelmine Haase. He died in Copenhagen in 1911.
Inevitably the last third of Svendsen's life left relatively little timefor composition, but in his earlier work he had seemed to Grieg to complementhis own work as a composer, providing a repertoire that brought togetherNorwegian inspiration with the sound principles that he imbibed in Leipzig,qualities evident in his handling of the orchestra and in his command oftraditional classical forms.
The Symphony No. 1 in D major, scored for pairs of flutes,oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones,timpani and strings, opens with an effective Molto allegro, in text-booksonata-allegro form. The repeated exposition with its principal andsecondary themes is exploited in a central development, which ends in mountingexcitement as the principal theme returns in recapitulation. The strings startthe A major Andante, the longest of the four movements of the symphony,with a strongly felt melody, in which clarinets, bassoons and French hornsjoin. This provides the chief substance of the movement, as it returns invarious guises, in part or in whole, in Elgarian grandeur or in sparertextures. There is a further shift of key to G major for the Allegrettoscherzando, with its opening peasant dance. There is a succeeding sectionin B flat, exploring the higher registers of the flutes and a shift to A majorfor a passage accompanied by the softest of plucked strings. There are furtherchanges of key before the return of the first material and the passageaccompanied by softly plucked strings, with which the movement ends. The lastmovement starts with a slow introduction of increasing intensity andexcitement, introducing the sonata-allegro form movement, with itssyncopated principal theme and contrasting secondary theme, introduced first bythe strings. The material is duly explored in a tightly constructeddevelopment, to return in the expected recapitulation.
Svendsen's Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, written someten years later than the first of his symphonies, further establishes hisposition as a major symph