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One of the consequences of owning a (very) large CD collection, is that one can forget just which recordings hide in it, overlooked for years. I had completely forgotten that I already possessed a recording of Eivind Groven’s music, and it was only on starting to write this review that the thought came to mind that perhaps his surname sounded vaguely familiar. Sure enough, I discovered that I have BIS CD-1312, which was enthusiastically reviewed by Rob Barnett . The only commonality between the two disks is the first symphony, and it has been interesting to compare the two recordings, made some 16 years apart.
Groven discarded parts of the symphony and re-wrote it in 1950, which is the version we hear here on Naxos. The discarded pieces formed part of the subsequent Norwegian Symphonic Dances Op.43, which are included on BIS; however, BIS do not give us the Second Symphony.
Groven is noted in Norway for his sophisticated use of folk melodies. He realised that the “tempered” scale, long used in Western European classical music, just did not fit the “natural scale” sounds produced by the Norwegian Folk Singers; in short, it was not possible to exactly reproduce those sounds in an orchestra or instrument. He set about carefully studying the note combinations in the tempered scale that would most nearly fit the folk-tunes. and arrived at some specific and unusual solutions - including the chord of a sixth and also some highly idiosyncratic major-minor conjunctions together with an avoidance of the more obvious palette of chords.
The first symphony opens with a memorable folk tune played by the trumpet, which is subsequently taken up by the strings and developed. It actually forms the basis of the movement and reappears wholly or partially elsewhere in the work. This tune is very well known in Norway, because Groven submitted it in a competition by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation for an ‘interval’ signal and station identifier. It won and was used by the Corporation for over 50 years, consequently, the symphony is sometimes called the ‘Signal Symphony’. Because of its memorability and Groven’s manipulation of it, the tune makes it easy to follow the movement and appreciate its colourful, melodic character.
The second movement is more dance-like, and the third movement Largo has a tune played by the tuba, gently accompanied, and then taken up by the full orchestra and melded with other tunes to form a lyrical and pleasing whole. The last movement is brass dominated at the opening, proclaiming another lyrical idea and the movement rapidly becomes quite contrapuntal, gradually developing to an exciting, brass dominated conclusion.
Both recordings are excellent, and of the two, I think that the BIS is very slightly more recessed and consequently needs the volume turning up, but only by half-a-notch. There are, of course, occasional differences in orchestral balance, but this can be the conductor’s choice rather than the record producer - for example, at the exciting climax of the first movement, there is a cymbal clash; on the BIS it is very clear, whereas the Naxos has it more integrated into the orchestra. Which is preferable? It’s a matter of choice, because, in fact, both these recordings are excellent, and both orchestras, though less well-known than those based in capital cities, play in a thoroughly coordinated and committed manner, and are energetically conducted. If I marginally prefer the BIS, that preference is indeed very marginal.
The second symphony of 1938-43 is partially a product of the years when the Nazis occupied Norway, and as such, might be expected to display some of the composer’s feelings; however, Groven was not a Norwegian Shostakovich, inclined to write music of searing intensity, and it is only in the slow second movement that there are signs of unsettled times. Whilst the music displays a degree of lyricism we might expect from a slow movement, there is an underlying sadness which doesn’t appear in the other two movements. The slow movement begins with the growling of the contrabassoon, with an understated accompaniment, which soon becomes louder, taking over the melodic lead. As with most of the music on this CD, there is repetition and variation of the melody, whilst other tunes are intertwined, and there is no hint of the atonality or neoclassicism that were the fashionable lures that entrapped so many composers of the period.
I mentioned that the other two movements do not really display any anger at the fate of Norway, and within a few seconds of the opening of the first movement, Groven gives us fairly ‘bouncy’ melodies, which bustle around. There are slower, more relaxed sections, but they don’t last long before the dance-like meter of the music returns. The last movement begins with pizzicato strings that very quickly give way to a dance like melody on the brass, with the trumpet in the lead, as is so often the case with Groven’s writing as presented on this CD. A lyrical melody in the strings soon develops as an important component of the music, later repeated on different instruments, and it is worth mentioning a particularly beautiful statement of it on the horn. As the end is approaching, the movement gathers momentum, and achieves a brassy, quite confident ending.
I don’t find the second symphony to be as appealing as the first, although it does make for pleasant listening. Entitled “The Midnight Hour”, it may be that some of the folk melodies used have words that justify the title, but this is just speculation on my part.
The melodies which Groven uses in both symphonies tend to have a similar cast, and one’s ear soon latches on to them. In both of these works, Groven has undoubtedly found that when a composer uses folk melodies in a classical music, the principal way of proceeding is to repeat them!
This is a most attractive CD and Naxos has served us well in issuing it. I hope that they can find more of Groven’s music to fill another disc, and record it using the same excellent forces.