Franz Berwald is "the outstanding Swedish composer of the 19th
century", according to the Naxos blurb, which perhaps damns him
with faint praise: what other Swedish composers of the period do we
know? His music reminds me of Berlioz. It doesn't "sound
French" in any way - the spacious, airy textures at the start
of the Reminiscence of the Norwegian Mountains could only
be Scandinavian. Nor does Berwald emulate the French composer's
idiosyncratic harmonic patterns, or his peculiar (in both senses)
voicings of them. Both composers do however use other techniques to
produce a similar edgy, mercurial quality.
There's the carefully timed event that disrupts established
expectations. As the Reminiscence, for example, hurtles in
tutti towards a rousing conclusion, the motion abruptly comes
to a stop on a [chord?], picking up with a quiet reprise of the spacious
introductory material, which rounds off the piece. Earlier in the
Reminiscence, Berwald displays a Berlioz-ish penchant for
displaced metrical stresses, which gives the faster writing an unstable,
aesthetically nervous quality.
Unfortunately, that last characteristic of Berwald-as-Berlioz is not
ideally served. The Gävle Symphony - yet another orchestra I'd
not known before - is a respectable ensemble, and under Petri Sakari
they play alertly and with style. That said, all the off-beat scurrying
can leave the players nervous (not aesthetically) and unsettled. The
running woodwind figures in the introduction to Wettlauf
sound particularly insecure, never quite dovetailing with the strings.
The notes call this an "Etude for String Orchestra", but
full wind and brass sections are distinctly audible. A similar insecurity
crops up in Ernste und heitere Griffen, though, with its
clearer rhythmic framework, it comes off better. Even the fugue in
Elfenspiel, with its irregular scansion, begins skittishly,
though Ulf Björlin's fuller-sounding EMI account is no better
in this respect.
The best performances here, oddly, come in those scores less characteristic
of the composer. In the Konzertstück for bassoon, Berwald
introduces the soloist with another surprise, when what had promised
to be a lengthy opening ritornello is resolved, and effectively
hijacked, by a single bassoon note in the upper-midrange. The score
is a real find: with its Classical contours and predominantly lyrical
solo writing, it's a quirky single-movement counterpart to
Weber's earlier concerto. Patrick Håkansson plays the lyrical
phrases with supple expression, pliant tone, taking the occasional
virtuoso outburst in his stride.
I've already cited the Reminiscence, the main section
of which, a well-organized sonata-allegro that builds steadily,
is bracketed by the more expansive music described earlier. The Drottningen
av Golconda overture is a surprisingly playful curtain-raiser
for a grand opera; it's colourful, though some of the short-winded
woodwind figures threaten to impede the momentum in the home stretch.
At Naxos prices, this is still attractive for the Reminiscence
and, especially, for the Konzertstück. The other performances
are flavourful, and will serve as stopgaps.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and