September 01, 2005


Berwald: Tone Poems. Petri Sakari conducting the Gävle Symphony Orchestra; with Patrik Håkansson, bassoon. Naxos. $7.99.

Although Franz Berwald’s four symphonies occasionally find a place in concert halls nowadays, the rest of his music continues to languish, much as it did during his lifetime (1796-1868). Berwald himself made the best of the neglect of his work, working as a violinist, founding an orthopedic institute and, in later years, becoming manager of a glassworks and then a sawmill, in addition to giving lessons. Happily, thanks to adventurous recordings like this one, music listeners can hear more of Berwald at home nowadays than either he or today’s audiences can hear in public.

There is a unique style to Berwald’s music that makes it easy to identify after hearing only a little of it. Scurrying strings, abrupt forte intrusions into softer passages, unusual harmonies, offbeat orchestrations and fondness for abrupt endings are among his works’ characteristics. The four tone poems and opera overture here are all vintage Berwald, though the sixth work – his Konzertstück for Bassoon and Orchestra – is less typical. This is a fairly youthful work, first performed in 1828, with an attractive Mozartean sound but fairly derivative treatment of the material (some of which comes from a then-popular opera called Clari).

The tone poems date mostly from the 1840s. Reminiscence of the Norwegian Mountains is an effective work with moments of grandeur and a puzzling conclusion. Elfenspiel is rapid and rather Mendelssohnian in its scurrying sections, though the dissonant brass at its climax has Berwald’s unique sound. The other tone poems sound a great deal like Berwald’s symphonic scherzos. Wettlauf (Foot-Race) could actually be a Berwaldian symphonic scherzo, with its constant scurrying and abrupt conclusion. Ernste und heitere Grillen (Serious and Joyful Fancies) somewhat resembles Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage in its contrasting sections, and the first part, in particular, seems Mendelssohnian; but the second, like Wettlauf, would fit a Berwald symphony very well indeed.

The final work here is the overture to Drottningen av Golconda (The Queen of Golconda), Berwald’s last operatic work and final major disappointment. He finished it in 1864 for the Royal Opera in Stockholm, which had staged his Estrella de Soria in 1862. But during rehearsals, a new director of the opera took over and cancelled the production – and the complete opera was not heard until the 100th anniversary of Berwald’s death. The overture, which is slowly making its way onto concert programs, is a worthy work, using themes from the opera with robust forward-looking momentum that makes it both a good curtain-raiser and a piece that stands well on its own. It is only recently that Berwald has been recognized as Sweden’s greatest 19th-centuy composer. These works, all very well played by the Gävle Symphony Orchestra under Petri Sakari, should add to Berwald’s still-growing reputation.

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