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Valen: Orchestral Music Vol 1 / Eggen, Bĺtnes, Stavanger SO

Release Date: 05/27/2008 
Label:  Bis   Catalog #: 1522   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Fartein Valen
Performer:  Elise Bĺtnes
Conductor:  Christian Eggen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stavanger Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

VALEN Symphony No. 1. Violin Concerto. Sonetto di Michelangelo. Cantico di ringraziamento. Pastorale Christian Eggen, cond; Elise Båtnes (vn); Stavanger SO BIS 1522 (58:06)

One of the great pleasures of collecting recordings is the occasional discovery of an exciting, previously unknown, work. Well, here are five of them, by a composer that has been neglected for far too long. Norwegian composer Fartein Valen (1887–1952) may be, as one Read more biography has it, “one of the few Norwegian composers with an international reputation,” but that doesn’t seem to be saying much. He was a modernist in a country much taken with its nationalist musical tradition and not particularly receptive to Valen’s innovations. His own apparent indifference to recognition and his withdrawal to the isolation of a rural farm for much of his creative life only added to his obscurity. One can hope this release, the first in a promised series of recordings of orchestral works from BIS will help to rectify this situation.

Valen studied with Max Bruch in Berlin and stayed to absorb the many other influences of that important musical capital in the second decade of the 20th century. He fell under the spell of Bach, Bruckner, and Brahms, but was also captivated by the progressives of that era, especially Arnold Schoenberg. When Schoenberg introduced his first works using serial techniques in the early 1920s, Valen was already home in Norway, developing his own type of serialism. It became the basis for all of his compositions written from 1925 on. Unlike Schoenberg, who developed a whole new theoretical system of music using tone rows of all 12 chromatic pitches, Valen worked intuitively and far less strictly. His point of departure was Bach’s rich polyphony, from which he developed comparably rich tone row-like chromatic melodies. Valen applied this technique of “dissonant counterpoint,” as he called it, in a variety of classic forms during the remainder of his career. The result is not the sometimes hard-edged dissonances of Schoenberg’s thornier scores. Rather, while there are no keys in Valen’s music, there is always a sense of vague tonality. The lines are incredibly long, but one never gets lost. There is a feeling of wandering, which is undoubtedly the desired effect. This is music of ambiguity and melancholy—a beautiful uncertainty which Valen packages in clear, familiar structures. It sounds vaguely like Berg, another important influence, but the overall effect is different.

Valen’s Symphony No. 1, op. 30 (1939), is, of course, classical in form. After a beginning of dark foreboding, the opening Allegro movement is tense and energetic, with moments of exaltation. El Greco’s painting Christ on the Mount of Olives is the inspiration for the second, Adagio, movement. The building of the line is ecstatic and the anguish palpable. The third movement provides contrast in the form of a playful scherzo and clouded trio before we are plunged back into the tensions of the rondo-form finale. It is an exhilarating journey.

The Violin Concerto, op. 37 (1940), is Valen’s most-played work and the one that finally brought him some recognition at its premiere in 1948. It was written as a memorial to his godson, Arne Valen, who had died of tuberculosis several years earlier. In it he expresses his profound sense of loss and his deep Christian faith, the latter especially in his use of the Bach chorale Jesu meine Zuversicht in the concluding section of the work. It bears a superficial similarity to the Berg Violin Concerto, of which Valen was aware, though he had not actually heard it. The work is intensely beautiful and deeply, often tenderly, moving.

The other works on the disc— Pastorale , op. 11 (1930), a meditation on his beloved rose garden, Sonetto di Michelangelo , op. 17/1 (1932), in which he contemplates the religious longing and pain in the great Italian artist’s poetry, and Cantico di ringraziamento , op. 17/2 (1932), in which Valen expresses Psalm-like thanksgiving in a beautifully constructed fugue—are equally rewarding experiences.

The Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, the excellent resident orchestra of Valen’s birthplace, has made a mission, on CD at least, of rescuing Norwegian composers from undeserved obscurity. Valen joins Geirr Tveitt and Harald Sæverud in their debt. Christian Eggen, who edited the often-faulty published scores to restore Valen’s intentions, is well known in Scandinavia for his performances of contemporary music. He conducts with admirable strength and sensitivity. Elise Båtnes, one of the foremost violinists of Norway, plays the difficult, soaring lines of the Concerto with silvery tone and great concentration. The recorded sound is very fine and the documentation excellent. This is not music of loud affirmation and major-key celebration. Look elsewhere for that. This is music of great emotional depth and asks a fair amount of the listener. It rewards in kind. Highly recommended with that caveat.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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Works on This Recording

Pastorale, Op. 11 by Fartein Valen
Conductor:  Christian Eggen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stavanger Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1929-1930; Norway 
Sonetto di Michelangelo, Op. 17 no 1 by Fartein Valen
Conductor:  Christian Eggen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stavanger Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1932; Norway 
Cantico di Ringraziamento, Op. 17 no 2 by Fartein Valen
Conductor:  Christian Eggen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stavanger Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1933; Norway 
Symphony no 1, Op. 30 by Fartein Valen
Conductor:  Christian Eggen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stavanger Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1937-1939; Norway 
Concerto for Violin, Op. 37 by Fartein Valen
Performer:  Elise Bĺtnes (Violin)
Conductor:  Christian Eggen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stavanger Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1940; Norway 

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