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CD Review

Franz Berwald

Hyperion 22043

Symphonies & Overtures

  • Symphony #1 "Sinfonie sérieuse" in G minor
  • Symphony #2 "Sinfonie capricieuse" in D Major
  • Symphony #3 "Sinfonie singulière" in C Major
  • Symphony #4 "Sinfonie naïve" in E Flat Major
  • Symphony in A Major (fragment)
  • Overture "Estrella de Soria"
  • Overture "The Queen of Golconda"
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Roy Goodman
Hyperion Dyad CDD22043 145:21 2CDs
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Serious, capricious, singular, and naïve.

I always associate the music of Swedish composer Franz Berwald (1796-1868) with the Sixties and the Ives revival. For one thing, commercial LPs of both composers began to appear 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 singulière, 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 premièred decades after his death in 1867. 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 only 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 Fauré-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 sérieuse 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, a 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 generate 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 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 singulière 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, à 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 première, 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.

Copyright © 2009, Steve Schwartz