Victor Bendix: Symphony no. 3 in Am, op. 25

performed by the Omsk Philharmonic under Evgeni Shestakov

Victor Emanuel Bendix was born on 17 May 1851 in Copenhagen, a Jewish Danish composer, student of Niels Gade (that again) and friend of one Carl Nielsen, who we’ve (briefly, long ago) seen on the blog before. He seems to have come from a musical family, his brothers also musicians. The article on Bendix’s wife, Rigmor Stampe Bendix, states that both she and her husband were ‘scandalously’ atheist.

Bendix himself also earned training as a pianist from the likes of fellow Dane and pianist extraordinaire August Winding, whose string quintet I was unable to feature because it seems no recording has been made, as well as Franz Liszt. He also served as conductor for a time, after having lived in German and Russia, and is said to have conducted (concert performances of) the last two operas of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Not even the Danish entry has much information on Bendix, but on paper, he seems to have had quite the musical chops. Rob Barnett at MusicWeb says “The Royal Danish Orchestra avoided his music. Despite this he was regarded as a person of high eminence in Danish musical life.” Hmmmm.

Today’s work is his third symphony, dating from 1895.

I had listened to his second a few times, recalling only that it had some memorable parts to it that made it a strong contender, but what they are specifically I now recall not. This third symphony, though, comes across as a soft work, in some ways. It has heft; it’s powerful, handsome, moving, but not sharp or aggressive. Think of the contrast between Brahms’s first and second (or third) symphonies. This work has an alluring fragrance, a quality about it that makes it not as instantly gripping as, say, Hamerik’s earlier this week (although I am loath to make a comparison like that), but upon closer inspection, probably a more gripping work, overall.

The work is in three uneven movements and comes in at 33 minutes (in this recording). The first movement presents two themes, the first quite melancholy, or at least a bit sentimental, and the second more optimistic. While this is a symphony of the late Romantic era, with big, warm sounds and sometimes a cinematic character, there’s still something intimate about it. There’s a violin solo that makes an appearance in the first movement, and overall the ‘conflict’ of ‘conflict and resolution’ between the two themes isn’t one of crossed swords and animosity, but a sort of ‘internal conflict’, that thing you learned about in lit class at some point, an emotional struggle, but even then not struggle in a heartbreaking or strained sense. It comes off as relatively warm and soft.

The second and shortest movement gives us the scherzo, a minor-key movement that sounds like Mendelssohn writing a ‘Turkish’ or ‘military’ scherzo a la Mozart or Haydn, but if he’d lived half a century longer, toward the end of the Romantic era, and been a little more daring. John France, also at MusicWeb, says “The second movement is subtitled ‘Multicoloured Pictures’ and is apparently based on ‘shifting street scenes’ – but once again it is not necessary to apply this imagery to enjoy what is a really fine scherzo.” Agreed.

It’s lively, crisp, crunchy, and even just a little bit wild. The trio here brings us to a delightful major-key place for a quick breather before getting back to the scherzo, not even in which do we find real angular, sharp music; it’s still rounded and melodic and swirling, with more heft, but never maniacal. It’s certainly a highlight of the work, wonderfully crafted, and the energetic high point of the work.

The third and final movement is the most substantial, and it’s a telling characteristic of the work that the slow movement makes up 13 of the 33 minutes and is also the finale. It begins richly, with almost Russian-like, broad, sweeping landscapes of rich strings. It’s beautifully melancholy, and I’d agree with France’s statement that it doesn’t quite sound like anybody. It doesn’t sound like Sibelius; it’s successful and comprehensible and terribly successful, but somehow not derivative. At times it is enormous in scope, almost cinematic, but in one long line, effortlessly growing and developing.

If one had to make comparisons, though, I’d say there’s something Brucknerian about the bigness and scope of the music, that it just continues to unfurl, sometimes reaching epic, glorious heights. It may not be as instantly ‘wowing’ as the scherzo, but when you sit back and listen to this movement as if you were in the concert hall, as if you could see each section contributing their building blocks to this growing tower of music, it’s a finely-crafted construction, detailed, pensive, powerful movement, and a wonderful end to a symphony that will probably continue to grow on me.

It says something about this work that this is how the piece is finished. Clearly the composer is more than capable of fast-paced, high-energy, captivating writing; we saw it in the scherzo; instead, though, it’s bookended by two movements of greater emotional climax than energetic ones. It’s the kind of epiphanic, introspective depth and beauty of a Brahms 2 or 3. It’s subtle; there’s nothing that bangs and crashes at the end to tell you that the piece is epic and important. It bows quietly and walks away, leaving you just slightly in awe of what was heard. It’s a beautiful piece, one that reveals just a little bit more beauty every time you listen. French says that “The entire work deserves recognition as one of the great 19th century symphonies.Yet I doubt that one music listener in 10,000 will ever get to grips with it – which is a crying shame.” That’s some praise, and I feel my attempt at explaining this piece’s particular charms was an ineffective one.

In a world with boatloads of Beethoven recordings, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss (and don’t get me wrong; I love it all), if you want something different, maybe you turn to the Russians: there’s Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and off that beaten path, Glazunov, Arensky, Kalinnikov, and more. But slightly different from that are Sibelius and some of the Finns. There’s the English symphony with the likes of Elgar (who may sound as pastoral at turns as Bendix does here) and Vaughan Williams (ditto, in places) (and Simpson, Brian, Arnold are not to be forgotten), but in a search for something really unique, a turn to a different composer with something really unique might also be lacking somewhere, although I find that rarely to be the case. Regardless, what we have here is someone different, and maybe we’ll just find that this unique amalgam of characteristics, a fine balance of what Bendix shows here is just peculiar to Danish composers, but I think not. In any case, we shall see, and I enjoyed his first two symphonies, and he has at least two more.

But that’s all for today, in an article that reads more as ‘you should go check this out’ than ‘let me tell you what I know about it.’ Stay tuned for more, and hav det godt. 

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