Nordic romanticism by Svendsen, Australian exuberance from Grainger – and lieder by Arlen
STUART MILLSON enjoys a mixed-bag of CD releases
Chandos Records, based at Colchester, Essex, is one of the most impressive names in the independent recording industry. When I first bought records made by this company (in the early 1980s) I was stunned by the depth and reality of what emanated from my loudspeakers; and by the off-the-beaten-track repertoire which the Chandos producers favoured. Orchestral music (The Children of Lir) by Sir Hamilton Harty, the Fourth Symphony by Bax, Ireland’s Legend and Piano Concerto set the tone, Chandos becoming the natural digital successor to Lyrita’s LP catalogue for rare British music. Only recently I was revisiting my Chandos records of Elgar’s symphonies, conducted by the late Bryden Thomson – the record pressings as good as the subsequent CD transfers. So when your resident reviewer received a new batch of CD issues from those Colchester-based connoisseurs, my delight could not be contained! And it is not simply a matter of Chandos recording quality standing out as a distinguished leader in the field: the quality of the packaging, the choice of cover photograph, typography, booklet, programme notes, and photographs of the artists all make for a richly rewarding experience. A Chandos CD or record is something to treasure.
The first disc to go into the CD player was the third volume in the series devoted to the Norwegian romantic, Johan Svendsen (1840-1911) – with a Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (now a real name in European music-making) on tip-top form in the Norsk Kunstnerkarneval (Norwegian Artists’ Carnival), Op. 14. With the great and eclectic Estonian, Neeme Jarvi, conducting, this seven-minute showpiece, dating from 1874, uses Norwegian folkish melodies to symbolise the Mountain King’s daughter, who is to marry “Prince Carnival’ – the Prince being a symbol of the “warm-blooded south”. If you know Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, or Mussorgsky’s Sorochinsky Fair, or the lyrical, pure-at-heart, village-gathering melodies of Grieg (Svendsen’s more famous musical compatriot), you will immediately like this Norwegian Artists’ (and Norwegian artist’s!) orchestral jaunt. The three-movement Violin Concerto, Op. 6, played by Marianne Thorsen, and the muscular Symphony No. 1, Op. 4, are the most substantial works on the disc: elegant, tuneful, noble European romantic music (Svendsen lived in Paris, Leipzig and Bayreuth, and so absorbed the great continental trends of the time). Yet Svendsen was also drawn to the loneliness of Iceland, and in the summer of 1867, embarked upon a trek to this fascinating land – the result being To islandske Melodier (the two Icelandic Melodies) for strings. The music has great simplicity; clean, cold, air from the far North, and the voice of old sagas rising from the music, like steam from the rocky landscape or a sea-mist drifting across a fishing village. Well done to Chandos for publishing the marvellous portrait of the intrepid composer, just before his Icelandic journey, dressed up in the clothing of what looks like a North Atlantic explorer, whaler, or fisherman.
I wonder if Svendsen knew the name of Percy Grainger? Grainger (1882-1961) certainly knew Grieg, and despite being associated (Grainger, that is) with Irish jigs, drunken reels, Colonial Songs and Gumsucker’s Marches from his native Australia (with the odd English Country Garden thrown in for good measure), was fond of the surroundings, folk-songs and customs of the Nordic world. How fitting, therefore, that the new Chandos Grainger disc contains the mysterious, The Wrath of Odin – the only part of a projected King Olaf saga, and the story of a mysterious stranger who delights an assembled company of ale-drinking Norsemen, but – as the dawn breaks – disappears into thin air. Grainger was one of music’s true eccentrics: leaping over pianos at recitals; hurling tennis-balls across the roof of Delius’s house – and charging through the front-door and hallway, in order to catch the ball as it bounced off the roof on the other side!; collecting and incorporating the ethno-musicology of the whole world into surreal compositions; and, in 1917, being photographed in the uniform of an American trooper and bandsman – with his long-suffering mother, Rose.
The distinguished British conductor, Sir Andrew Davis, presides over this kaleidoscope of a collection, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus – an ensemble about which we hear very little. On the strength of this recording, they are first-rate, and certainly attuned to the spirit of Grainger, delivering a Kipling setting, Danny Deever; a Marching Song of Democracy (inspired by the visionary writing of Walt Whitman, and a statue of George Washington); a gallant knight and dragon-menacer, Sir Eglamore (with plenty of “Fa, la, lanky down dilly”!); and a punch-up on the Scottish Borders – The Lads of Wamphray. My only (ever-so-slight) criticism of this disc, is that the acoustic of the Hamer Hall, Melbourne, is a little hard and dry, perhaps. Clear and well-played – of course – but somehow I felt that a warmer acoustic might have helped matters. Despite this, a surprising, rare and delightful collection.
Finally, and in a complete change of mood, the lieder of Walter Arlen (born 1920) takes the listener on a spiritual journey through Songs of Love and Yearning, Sonnets to Orpheus, Sonnets of Shakespeare, and the soul of The Poet in Exile. An exile himself, Arlen escaped from the fearful, barbed-wire state of annexed Austria in 1938, for the freedom of the United States. However, an uprooting of any kind, especially for a man as sensitive as Arlen, can cause profound depression, and in his early days in Chicago – deprived of the use of a piano – the young composer began to fall into ill-health.
But listening to the beautiful songs on this two-CD set on the exquisite Gramola label, one would think that Arlen’s world had been one of endless beauty and reflection. It is a tribute to the human spirit that a man can overcome the horrors and sorrows of this world, to produce music of this kind. But Arlen is difficult to pin down. In some songs, there is a hint, a shadow of Gustav Mahler – that absolute romantic who brought wayfarers, Rhine-legends, misty mountainsides and nocturnal forest-glades into songs and symphonies. Yet in other parts of the recording, one could almost be listening to English song – to Britten, or Quilter. A melancholic feel is there, and that indefinable 20th Century lyricism that seems to give pain and pleasure in equal part. Arlen is well served by performers Rebecca Nelsen (soprano), Christian Immler (baritone), and Danny Driver, piano. All in all, a wonderful discovery.
Stuart Millson is the QR’s Music Editor
Svendsen, orchestral works, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Jarvi. CHAN 10766
Grainger, works for Large Chorus and Orchestra/Melbourne SO & Chorus, and Sydney Chamber Choir/Sir Andrew Davis. CHSA 5121
Arlen, Es geht wohl anders – Things turn out differently/Nelsen/Immler/Driver. Gramola 98946/47