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Niels Viggo BENTZON (1919-2000)
Symphony No. 8 Sinfonia Discrezione Op. 113 (1957) [44.20]
Symphonic Variations Op. 92 (1952) [17.55]
Gothenburg-Aarhus Philharmonic/Douglas Bostock
rec. Artisten, Goteborg, 23-24 Jan 2005. world premiere recording (8); first CD recording (Variations). DDD

The Danish composer Niels Viggo Bentzon is not a stranger to recordings. There are three significant discs of orchestral music on the Marco Polo/Da Capo label and all have been reviewed here. In addition, his gargantuan Det Temperede Klaver for solo piano are out on the ClassicO label recorded by the composer himself: There are also recordings on Danacord and Kontrapunkt.

Det Temperede Klaver
Symphonies 3 and 4
Symphonies 5 and 7

Piano solos

review 1
review 2

Bentzon was astonishingly productive: 24 symphonies, 14 string quartets and 25 piano sonatas amongst much else. The first symphony dated from 1942; the last from 1994.

Bentzon's troubled Eighth Symphony is in four movements. The first runs to almost eighteen minutes. It instantly establishes, through a discreet drum-roll, a bleak landscape. There are Shostakovichian interjections and rolling asides. Side-drum interruptions link us tersely with Nielsen and there are resemblances to the mighty Carl. Bentzon is full of surprises; for example at 5:04 listen for the galloping triumphant music with silvery highlights contributed by triangle. At 14:50 the eloquent yet tense violins suggest a link with Vaughan Williams' Sixth Symphony while the stinging violence that closes the movement links with the writing of William Schuman. The Allegro Molto in its cool oboe serenading reminds us of Nielsen 4 and 5 in their moments of pastoral loneliness. The oboe song over a strong pizzicato is a strong Nielsen-like 'signature'. The andante tranquillo is serenity itself but once again, like Nielsen, this is not music that offers perfect peace. Quiet it may be but it does not administer quietude in the benediction of its long high violin lines. The fast-trudging and shuddering music of 4.32 onwards is exciting and distinctive - very tense. My, does this composer enjoy twisting the tension turn by turn. At 6.44 the raindrop pizzicato recalls with remarkable fidelity the orchestral writing of Alan Hovhaness. The final allegro rushes away in a conspiratorial rustling like a cross between Herrmann's Psycho driving music, Waxman's string Sinfonietta and the whispering ostinato from Luonnotar. This breaks out into rushing spleen before a heavily energetic discharge of power explodes recalling the explosive outbursts in Shostakovich symphonies 13 and 14. The symphony ends in whispering violin whirlwinds and recollections of the Nielsen-like blasts of energy unleashed early in the work mixed with the triumphant tramp of Vaughan Williams' 4th symphony.

Five years before the Eighth Symphony, Bentzon completed his Symphonic Variations. Older hands will know - or know of - this work because it was on a 1972 Turnabout LP (TV 34374S) coupled with his Chamber Concerto for eleven instruments. There the performers were the Royal Danish Orchestra conducted by Jerzy Semkow. The Symphonic Variations were premiered on 10 December 1952 conducted by Paul Kletzki conducting the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra. It was this work that gave his name international currency. It was taken up by Celibidache and even received a studio premiere on the Third Programme from Sargent on 13 March 1959 (we can guess what Sargent thought of it).

The Symphonic Variations comprise a molto moderato theme and ten variations. The music is tougher than that for the Eighth Symphony although some movements are more accessible such as the Palladian raindrop peace of Variation II. The gawky Darmstadt dissonance of Variation III contrasts with the Hilding Rosenberg-style off-beat stomp of Variation IV - try Rosenberg's Sixth Symphony (now on Phono Suecia but once also on Turnabout coupled with Blomdahl 3 - TV34318S). Variation VI sidles up and is vaguely threatening. It is quiet but definitely harbours menace in its wings. As Mr Foreman says this is an exercise in desolation and cold comfort. The work ends in an impressive protesting growl, a howl of the brass and those thunderous hammer-blows of the type Sibelius used to end his Fifth Symphony and Nielsen used to launch his Third.

The orchestra is made up of seniors from the academies of music in Aarhus in Denmark and Goteborg in Sweden; what a delightful cross-border initiative! The names of the members of the orchestra are listed on pages 16 and 17 of the booklet.

The orchestra perform impressively and with complete professionalism. Strings have fine unanimity, body, glow and intonation while the brass, woodwind and hard-pressed percussion are magnificent. The project is a credit to the orchestra and to Douglas Bostock whose open-minded approach to unusual repertoire is invigorating and should set the pace for the many ‘stars’ who too easily succumb to predictable orthodoxy. Any chance of some more Bentzon symphonies?

The agreeably ubiquitous Lewis Foreman provides the notes for this release and helpfully makes many BBC connections as well as providing a wide range of information and context.

Rob Barnett


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