Revisit Mortensen’s “retro” symphony

CD Review

Melinda Bargreen
Everett, Wash.

Mortensen SymphonyFans of symphonic music might imagine there’s not much more to find in Norway besides the works of Edvard Grieg—the one Norwegian composer who always comes reliably to mind. In point of fact, however, although their names are not widely known, a long and distinguished list of Norwegian composers have made substantial contributions to the orchestra repertoire in the past century: Johan Halvorsen, Gerhard Schjelderup, Hjalmar Borgstrøm, Leif Halvorsen, Arvid Kleven, Pauline Hall, Ludvig Irgens-Jensen, Fartein Valen, Harald Sæverud, Geirr Tveitt, Finn Mortensen, Alfred Janson, Antonio Bibalo, Arne Nordheim, Olav Naton Thommessen, Ketil Hvosleff, Asbjørn Schaatun, Ragnar Söderling, Rolf Wallin, and Lasse Thoresen.

The lone symphony of one of these composers, Finn Mortensen (1922-1983), is featured on a remarkable new disc by the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Norwegian conductor Peter Szilvay. Mortensen has been called “one of Norway’s first modernists,” but his symphony falls comfortably into the accessible, even neoclassical, mode of expression.

Premiered in 1953, the 37-minute Mortensen Symphony (Op. 5) is a work of considerable beauty. During most of Mortensen’s lifetime, however, the work was seen as a “retro” symphony in an era of avant-garde serialism, when melody and harmony were deeply unfashionable. Audiences of today, when it’s no longer “verboten” to write tonal and more traditional music, are likely to be more receptive to this remarkable and worthy work.

Some commentators have likened Mortensen’s Symphony to the symphonies of the mighty Anton Bruckner and Mahler; others cite the shared musical language of Paul Hindemith and Carl Nielsen, as well as Ralph Vaughan Williams. In Mortensen’s sonic universe, tonality and melody and harmony are still valid concepts. The Symphony doesn’t sound overtly “Scandinavian”; there are no discernible folk themes that would identify the music as specifically Nordic (as one would find, for instance, in much of the music of Grieg).

Composed in the traditional four-movement mode, the work concludes with a large-scale quadruple fugue and a substantial coda.

Conductor Szilvay and the orchestra make a strong case for revisiting the Mortensen Symphony. Full of lively and propulsive energy, this reading also features questing, searching woodwind solos as well as feisty brass fanfares with a martial edge. There’s a cinematic feel to some of the movements; the music often is engagingly picturesque.

The Mortensen Symphony recording has been released in multiple formats: CD, the retro and newly popular “big records” (33 1/3 rpm vinyl), Blu-ray in 5.1 surround, and digital streaming on all platforms. (Stereo vinyl will be released June 8.) The symphony was recorded on location in Stavanger, Norway, in the SSO’s Konserthus by the multiple Grammy Award-winning engineer Jim Anderson. Ulrike Schwarz was the producer. The recording was mixed at Skywalker Sound in northern California, and mastered by Robert C. (Bob) Ludwig of Portland, Maine.

Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle-based writer and composer whose career at The Seattle Times began in 1977. Her choral works include the “Norwegian Folksong Suite.” Melinda contributes to many publications and is the author of Seattle Opera’s 50-year history book. She holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Washington, and a doctorate from the University of California, Irvine.

This article originally appeared in the May 4, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.


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