Any composer born within a generation or so of the Great Romantics laboured under the shadow of the "big" symphony. Ambitious spirits would flap about in ill-fitting structures while the few who were destined for symphonic immortality – Mahler being both the best and the best-known – achieved a closer fit. But there were others who didn't quite make the top grade. The young Grieg, for example, who wrote the first movement of his sole Symphony at white heat, then took his time over the rest. He even programmed the middle movements for his conducting debut in Copenhagen, but by 1867 he had slapped a total ban on the piece, having never heard it complete.
But he had heard Svendsen's First Symphony, which is what clinched his decision to withdraw from the symphonic field. Why? His Symphony is a most appealing work, as bracing as early Nielsen and with a memorably velvet-textured first movement second subject. True, the Adagio is vaguely reminiscent of Schumann but the bucolic Intermezzo (a scherzo in all but name) is pure Grieg, a sure precursor of the fill-up on Ari Rasilainen's new recording with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, the four Symphonic Dances. Here, of course, the composer's blossoming potential manifests itself in full, but if you've an ear for Nordic orchestral repertoire then the Symphony is a definite must-have. Rasilainen's performance has an airiness and energy that should win the work many new friends, and I was glad that he divided his violin desks left and right of the rostrum, which helps clarify Grieg's musical arguments.
The musical polymath Antony Beaumont does the same on his Czech Philharmonic recording of Alexander von Zemlinsky's equally auspicious Symphony in B flat, the product of a musical mind that Brahms had already deemed "bursting with talent". Again, there are probable influences in the music, Bedrich Smetana (of the First String Quartet) being perhaps the most conspicuous. But the mature Zemlinsky peeps through time and again, especially in the worried Scherzando and the Adagio slow movement, which seems to have something of Josef Suk's accepting melancholy.
The finale's canny structure hints at the ingenuity of the much later – and much leaner – Sinfonietta, a total masterpiece full of clever asides and telling shifts in texture. The intervening years had seen the European political scene turn sour but Zemlinsky internalised the darkening times to his creative advantage. Both here and in the Wagnerian prelude to the early opera Es war einmal... Beaumont secures a sensitive response from his Czech players.
Grieg: Symphony/Symphonic Dances – Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Ari Rasilainen (Finlandia 8573-87777-2)
Zemlinsky: Symphony in B flat, Sinfonietta – Czech PO, Antony Beaumont (Nimbus NI 5682)Reuse content