David Monrad Johansen – Norwegian treasure

As I continue to explore the highways and the byways of the classical repertoire, I find that every country has its national treasure. Sometimes, as with Antonin Dvorak, that treasure is shared with the world. Norway’s treasure, David Monrad Johanson hasn’t been — so far.

Johansen is Norwegian, but his taste is cosmopolitan. Mixed in with Norwegian folk elements are impressionist gestures inspired by Debussy, coupled with modal scales and harmonies.

The showpiece in this recording is the 1955 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Johansen was a concert pianist, and this work reflects his skill. The solo piano part isn’t easy but seldom is complex for its own sake. Pianist Jan Henrik Kayser, who premiered the work, called it the best Norwegian concerto since Edvard Grieg’s.

I can hear that. The work is big, with many large, dramatic gestures both for piano and orchestra. And yet it’s all clearly organized and easy to follow. Pianist Oliver Triendl plays with confidence and feeling. The runs sound flawless, and his phrasing shapes the melodies into beautiful forms.

The release includes three other orchestral works by Johansen.

Pan is a post-Romantic tone poem. Stylistically, it a blend of Richard Strauss with Claude Debussy. Its rich rich harmonies, swirling strings, and soaring brass reminded me of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain (without the scary parts).

Johansen’s “Epigrams on Norwegian Motifs” is an effective work. The music captures the flavor of Norwegian folk music, from its droning fiddles to sprightly clarinet lines.

The Symphonic Variations and Fugue present a more cosmopolitan style. Johansen studied in Germany, and this work would fit well with similar German (and international) orchestral programs of the 1940s.

Johansen’s music has some interesting traits — his use of unusual scales, his orchestrations, and his use of Norwegian folk elements. To me, though, the music all seemed rather low key. The climaxes didn’t really seem like big moments.

Still, the music and the performances piqued my interest. I’d like to hear more of Johansen’s work before passing final judgment. And I really did enjoy the piano concerto.

David Monrad Johansen: Piano Concerto
Pan; Symphonic Variations; Epigrammer
Oliver Triendl, piano
Kirstiansand Symphony Orchestra; Eivind Aadland, conductor

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