Eivind Groven: Symphonies 1 & 2

Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra & Peter Szilvay

Naxos 8.573871

In a somewhat shameful oversight on the part of this reviewer, this 2020 release completely passed me by. Shaming not simply because it is a release of some fascinating lesser-known symphonies but also because they are composed by the uncle of one of our Society members, the renowned harmonica virtuoso Sigmund Groven!

Eivind Groven was a Norwegian composer, music theorist and performer, who achieved considerable fame in his native land for his preservation of rural folk traditions (as well as folk musics of Inuit peoples), some of which were greeted by the urban public very harshly. His incorporation of folk music into his own musical idiom perhaps marks a rebellious streak, but it is far from out-of-place in the history of Norwegian Classical music. Critical response in his lifetime was sometimes to claim that he was writing ‘atonal’ music, but this could not be further from the case. Groven’s symphonies present charming tonal (with modal embellishments) melodic writing, quite tame to the modern ear familiar with pastoral styles (the likes of Vaughan Williams and Howells) with an unmistakably Scandinavian flair.

Both symphonies hint toward the programmatic with their subtitles To the Mountains and The Midnight Hour, but the composer himself was keen, particularly in the Second Symphony, to avoid overtly programmatic associations.

The first symphony has a more literary reference in its subtitle, but the excellent liner notes for the CD by Anne Jorunn Kydland inform us that the work has also earned the nickname The Signal Symphony. This is due to its treatment of the opening motif, a lalinger, a kind of vocal call used to for communication over long distances in the Norwegian mountainous region. The motif echoes through the work as if responses are being heard from the initial call. This motif is especially famous in Norway, as Groven won a competition to compose a jingle for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation and his winning entry is identical to this motif. The folk influence is clear throughout, with modal allusions to the kind of music we’d hear played on a Hardanger Fiddle, an instrument on which Groven was a master performer.

This work is moody without being overly dark. Its central movement is wistful and seems full of longing, while its final upbeat movement is ultimately unabashedly optimistic, though highly dramatic. This symphony has been recorded before on the BIS label and while the BIS recording does exhibit a slightly richer sound quality, the performance from the Kristansand Symphony Orchestra here is nevertheless outstanding, with a real sense of urgency in the final movement.

The Second Symphony is a much darker affair, as its subtitle perhaps hints. Written largely during the Second World War, the shadows are undeniably longer, especially in the central slow movement, with its achingly elegiac main theme couple with doom-laden thumps on the timpani. Flashes of polytonality appear and marginally more contrapuntal writing than found in its predecessor. It is not entirely pessimistic, however, and the final movement seems to illustrate this. Evidently, it was penned in a frenzy of compositional activity in the space of ten days, when the composer visited his childhood home. However hard won, the sun really does break through the dark clouds at the close of this work.

This is the first time that both of Eivind Groven’s symphonies have been issued together and they prove a fascinating listen and one that I’ll be sure to revisit. The performance is full of character, the orchestra under Peter Szilvay have a clear feel for the music and succeed in bringing the rawness of the folk material to the fore. It is not, however, without finesse and the performers are to be congratulated on their convincing combination of the wilder elements with the more tempered meditative moments in both works. I would have preferred a greater sense of depth in the recording (as illustrated on the BIS recording of the first symphony), as I do find the lower instrumental ranges somewhat lacking here, but quibbles aside, this is still a collection to be celebrated by a fascinating composer deserving of more attention. DA

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