Valen Complete Symphonies

Author: 
Robert Layton

Valen Complete Symphonies

  • Symphony No. 1
  • Symphony No. 2
  • Symphony No. 3
  • Symphony No. 4

Fartein Valen was very much a loner in Norwegian music, and although is piano music enjoyed the advocacy of Glenn Gould, he has all but disappeared from view outside Norway. Undoubtedly his best work is the Violin Concerto, which has some similarities with the Berg (its composition was prompted by the death of a young person and it ends with a Bach chorale Jesus, meine Zuversicht). Valen spent his childhood in Madagascar (his father was a missionary) and studied philology and languages at the university in Christiania (as Oslo was then known) before becoming a pupil of Max Bruch in Berlin. As early as 1923 (in the Piano Trio, Op. 5), he developed a kind of 12-note technique, which he used for the rest of his creative life.
The four symphonies encompass a decade: the First began life as a piano sonata but was finished in its definitive orchestral form two years later in 1939. Some of it strikes me as dense in texture but the opening of the second movement of the First Symphony is an exception: here the textures are limpid and transparent, and the pale luminous colours are distinctively northern. The Second Symphony was written in 1941-4 during the German occupation of Norway, which had plunged him into the darkest depression. The Third occupied him for another two years, but by the time of the Fourth (1949) Valen was beginning to emerge from the shadows. The middle movement of No. 4 has a keen poetic intensity and an affecting elegiac quality. As I said in reviewing these discs first time round, the symphonies still remain problematic: there is a powerful atmosphere, an individual (if neurasthenic) sensibility and much delicacy of feeling but over so long a time-span you feel the deficiency in rhythmic vitality and line. But they still cast a certain spell and the performances by the Bergen Symphony Orchestra under Aldo Ceccato are sensitive and well prepared and the recordings excellent. It is good to have them back.'

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