Enter “Swedish Composers” into Wikipedia and you get
a list 126 names long. In the relatively specialist field of classical
music even the most ardent admirer would concede that Swedish
music, on the world stage at least, is in turn a specialist area.
From the list of 126 jump some names amongst others - Hugo Alfvén,
Kurt Atterburg, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Dag Wirén, Ture Rangström
and Lars-Erik Larsson - figure as 20th
and indeed symphonists of considerable stature. The record labels
BIS and CPO in particular have produced various series of discs
proving beyond a shadow of doubt that they were composers and
musicians of great worth. Missing from the list is the name of
Helmer Alexandersson. Not that one should conclude that he does
not deserve to be in such company however it does underline the
unavoidable fact that his is a little (if at all) known name.
All the more praise therefore to the enterprising Sterling label
for unearthing these two works.
As the extensive and informative liner-notes explain, he lived
most of his 41 years in relative obscurity and eventually died
in extreme poverty: certificates being signed to that effect permitting
the City of Stockholm to cover the cost of his burial. So to the
music. Neither work demands resurrection or world-wide acclaim.
I’d have to say that any of the symphonies by the composers
listed above are of greater worth. The disc opens with the 1910
Overture in C minor. The writer of the liner-note hears something
akin to Eric Coates here. Sadly the allusion eludes me. This seems
to me rather sober and opaque with nothing of the rhythmic élan
or melodic memorability of the King of British Light Music. The
well-behaved audience at this live recording seem similarly underwhelmed,
the polite applause fading quickly.
Alexandersson’s First Symphony is described as a youthful
work which the composer listed as “…. not going to
be performed”. The Symphony No.2 is the major work featured
here. It is in the standard four movements although as originally
conceived in 1914 it was a three movement piece to which the third
was added in 1919. The writer describes
this interpolation as being “strikingly innovative”.
Given that the year of its composition/insertion is the same as
Charles Ives’ Orchestral Set No.3
the assertion seems a little bold particularly
when for me its musical association is with the pizzicato scherzo
of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4
of 1877. But Alexandersson
was right to feel that the structure of the Symphony in its three
movement incarnation was unbalanced. The first movement lasts
nearly seventeen minutes, which is as long as the original second
movement and finale put together. The thematic material feels
over-stretched by the extended length of the movement. Alexandersson
relies on repetition of the essentially simple but appealing melodies
over a Sibelius-like series of pedal notes. Track 2 2:00 gives
a good idea of the style and quasi-heroic mood here. The slow
movement is placed second and is lyrical and flowing in an attractive
but unassuming way. A minor key trumpet fanfare leads into the
second subject group which develops along similarly easily assimilated
ways. The third is for strings alone and to my ear is by far the
weakest part of the work. Melodically limited and reactionary
even by the standards of the rest of the piece it feels like an
interpolation. The rest of the disc is efficiently played if lacking
any real fire in the collective bellies of the Uppsala Chamber
Orchestra which in this movement suffers from scrappy ensemble
and suspect intonation. Although marked Allegretto
feeling is that conductor Paul Mägi seriously misjudges the
tempo of this movement; essentially a light music miniature. It
needs to barrel along with buoyant good humour but in this performance
it plods and the music is ill-served. Things improve in the Finale.
Even the orchestra sounds more engaged, and the length of the
piece is better judged although once again it has to be said that
the audience reaction is nothing like as fervent as that described
in the liner-note regarding the first performances.
So as ever, whilst warmly welcoming the chance to hear a rare
symphony I find it hard to enthuse much. One last nail I’m
afraid - the playing time of the CD comes in at a miserly sub
fifty minutes which is hard to justify for a full price disc these
days. If any reader is coming afresh to Swedish symphonic composers
I strongly urge you to investigate any of those listed at the
start of this review - a random selection of their works would
give greater musical satisfaction than this modest addition to
the repertoire. The Lars-Erik Larsson symphonies are probably
the closest stylistically but even they have a technical assurance
and melodic and formal command that far outstrips the best that
Alexandersson can muster.
A disc for Swedish symphonic music completists only.
see also review by Rob