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CLASSICAL  March 2009

CLASSICAL March 2009

Subject:

Northern light

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 18 Mar 2009 19:08:30 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

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Franz Berwald
Symphonies & Overtures

*  Overture to Estrella de Soria
*  Symphony #3 in C "Sinfonie singuliere"
*  Overture to The Queen of Golconda
*  Symphony #2 in D "Sinfonie capricieuse"
*  Symphony in A (fragment)
*  Symphony #1 in g "Sinfonie serieuse"
*  Symphony #4 in Eb "Sinfonie naive"

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Roy Goodman
Hyperion Dyad CDD22043 Total Time: 145:21 (2 CDs)

Summary for the Busy Executive: Serious, capricious, singular, and naive.

I always associate the music of Swedish composer Franz Berwald (1796-1868)
with the Sixties and the Ives revival.  For one thing, a spate of
commercial LPs of both composers appeared then.  For another, the music
of both men (who, incidentally, also put in considerable time running
businesses) prophesied later developments.  I still remember my surprise
at the brazen dissonances of Berwald's Sinfonie singuliere, which put
me a bit in mind of Stravinsky.  During his life, Berwald earned the
praise of people like Berlioz and Liszt - young ideas in an old head.
Significantly, he had a far higher reputation in Germany than in Sweden,
and ironically his German reception improved his Swedish one.  In
hindsight, one can consider Berwald a pioneer of the Nordic style,
especially with his fondness for pedal points and slowly evolving
harmonies.  However, it turns out that Berwald's innovations - unlike
those of Ives, Berlioz, or even Mendelssohn - didn't lead directly to
deeper or wider emotional expression.  The characteristic coolness of
his music fell out of joint with the times, and much of his work premiered
decades after his death in 1868.  Of his four symphonies, he heard only
one.  No other composer followed along his path, and the boomlet of the
1960s slowed to a sputter. He remains a sport in the history of music.

Berwald learned his art in a musically conservative Sweden, and the
originality of his invention aside, he had essentially a classical
artistic temperament - no emotional excess, no "sensitive" melancholy.
His music speaks directly, even roughly, more witty than passionate or
tender.  Sometimes one hears ghosts of Beethoven, sometimes adumbrations
of Mendelssohn, Wagner, and even Nielsen (an admirer, by the way).  One
also encounters many formal innovations.

All this appears fairly early in the Symphony in A, written in 1820,
when Berwald is just twenty-four years old and Beethoven is entering
his last and greatest phase.  Only the first movement survives, nearly
seventeen minutes of ear-stretching stuff: Wagnerian, even Faure-like
modulations, melodies that emphasize the tritone (think of Bernstein's
"Maria"), "Fingal's Cave" gloom.  A pawky little march passage amazed
me the most - harmonized deliberately crude and incomplete.  You don't
really get anything remotely like this until Stravinsky.

All four numbered symphonies come from within a three-year period during
the early 1840s.  The success of Berwald's orchestral works in Vienna
apparently spurred him on.  Of the four, the Sinfonie serieuse belongs
most to its time - the avant-garde of its time, at any rate, especially
Mendelssohn and Schumann.  In the first movement Mendelssohnian melodic
tropes are leavened with absolutely dazzling orchestration and unconventional
counterpoint.  The use of solo winds in the orchestral texture is
particularly effective, as their calls and cries seem to leap out.  The
slow movement aims for perfect stillness, an emotional coloring that
became a regular feature of Scandinavian music much later on, with
composers like Grieg, Nielsen, and Larsson.  The first theme of the
entire symphony is recalled by a similar shape though different rhythm
in the second - a run up the scale to the flatted sixth degree.  Berwald
marks his scherzo movement "Stretto," and thus we can expect something
highly contrapuntal.  Again, the main theme is that of the opening
movement, now in 6/8 time.  Also noteworthy is Berwald's solo use of
brass, very unusual at the time.  The scherzo ends inconclusively.  A
short pause - a breath, really - and we're into the finale, but not with
a bump. The music briefly reinstates the mood of the slow movement before
tumbling into a quasi-rondo.  The motto theme reappears with a difference.
Berwald breaks it up, giving the upward run to the lower strings and the
flattened sixth to the winds.  The effect is to create two themes, for
the flattened sixth no longer ends the run but begins a new theme.  The
movement, rhythmically perhaps a bit too regular, nevertheless generates
much variety in episodes of extreme contrast.  The orchestration is again
brilliant and way ahead of what even the acknowledged geniuses were
coming up with at the time.

The full score to the three-movement second symphony has been lost, so
this performance uses a completion/edition by another hand.  In general,
this symphony is emotionally lighter than its predecessor.  The first
movement, practically monothematic, swings along like Nielsen's Maskarade
overture, with an unusual turn of phrase that shows up in the later work,
although we can probably put this down to coincidence.  The slow movement
sandwiches an allegretto (which Berwald sneaks into and, at the end,
away from) between two occurrences of an eloquent chorale.  Unlike the
quicker movements, this one seems devoid of influence or foreshadowing.
We get Berwald at his most original, if not his most innovative.  The
finale begins Berlioz-light and rises to bright fanfares in the brasses
and winds.  One notes especially the variety of color in the solo lines
against the presto ostinatos.

The Sinfonie singuliere certainly earns its name.  There's really nothing
like it until the beginnings of Modernism.  It opens like the Nielsen
fourth and fifth - harmony at nearly a dead stop, a tonality gradually
coming into being, and rhythmic restlessness.  Harmonically, it marks
an advance on most of the nineteenth century.  Berwald doesn't treat
dissonance as "functional" - that is, as something to be resolved into
consonance or as a means to modulating to another key.  A dissonance can
become, in the words of one critic, a "sound-object," and change of key
somewhat arbitrary and practically instantaneous.  Individual tones,
especially from the heavier brass, jump out like grimacing jacks-in-the-box.
The interval of the fourth (up and down) is a basic building piece. It's
never absent from the center of symphonic action for long, either as
a motto or in its prominence in the main themes.  The second movement
begins as a chorale, a typically Nordic celebration of nature, except
that at the time there was nothing typical about it.  Berwald fills
it with an emotional coolness, an objectification.  We don't transcend
anything.  Nature is not the mirror of our feelings but simply is.
Berwald innovates formally by combining slow movement and scherzo,
and toward the end of the scherzo, music from the world of the chorale
combines with the fleeter rhythms, until the chorale returns, abbreviated
for one last time.  The finale, one of Berwald's best, combines vigor
and lightness and rises effortlessly to real eloquence.

I've known the first three symphonies for close to forty years.  The
fourth is absolutely new to me, although it has undoubtedly appeared on
recordings before this one.  The first movement comes over as a cross
between the Beethoven of the Eroica and Berlioz, although the argument
isn't as strong as Beethoven's and the colors not as subtle as Berlioz's.
In many ways, it belongs more to its time than any of its sibs.  One can
ferret out more easily its debts to people like Schumann, especially in
the Adagio and Scherzo.  But it is also a compendium of Berwald without
his astounding novelties, and it turns out that Berwald is a good enough
composer on his own to keep interest.  This beats a couple of Mendelssohn
symphonies I can think of.  The finale shows his light wit and his
penchant for pulling musical rabbits out of his hat, a la Haydn.

The overtures come from two of Berwald's five or so complete operas. 
I think it fair to say that the overtures to Estrella de Soria and The
Queen of Golconda have kept interest in the operas themselves flickering.
As far as I know, there has been only one modern performance of each,
and that of Golconda was the premiere, staged for the centenary of
Berwald's death.  They are well-written, more so than most contemporary
works in the genre, but they pale in interest, compared to Berwald's
symphonies.  Both come closer to Mendelssohn than to Beethoven or Berlioz.
Since I don't know the plot of either opera, I can't comment on the
aptness of the musical atmosphere.  However, the overture to Estrella
seems more tragic than Golconda, although the latter has one amazing
moment, when four cellos take over for the entire orchestra.

Goodman and his band of Swedes play well, but not great.  Rhythms are
sharp, textures clear, but I feel as if someone will wring more out of
this music.  The set lists at around $24.  However, I've seen the exact
same thing (different cover and number) on Amazon for about $11.  I have
no idea what the difference is, other than a more than 50% saving.

Steve Schwartz

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