Erland von KOCH (1910-2009)
Symphony No. 3, Op. 38 (1948) [23:28]
Sinfonia seria (Symphony No. 4), Op. 51 (1962) [20:23]
Impulsi (1964) [11:17]
Nordiskt capriccio, Op. 26 (1943) [6:21]
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Per Hammarström
rec. 2010-13, Berwald Hall, Stockholm, Sweden
Reviewed as a 24/48 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
World première recordings (symphonies)
BIS BIS-2169 [62:48]

This is one of my ‘innocent ear’ reviews. In the past they’ve yielded some wonderful surprises – the works of Lars-Erik Larsson and Alfredo Casella come to mind – so I wasted no time downloading this new von Koch release. I note that Rob Barnett had good things to say about two discs of music by this little-known Swedish composer; one from Phono Suecia that includes the Nordiskt capriccio, the other a mixed collection issued by Swedish Society Discofil. At the time of writing – January 2016 – Chandos also had plans to release a von Koch recording, but as with their recent Copland album the Swedes have beaten the Brits to the draw once again.

So, who is Erland von Koch? Stockholm born and bred he studied at the city’s conservatoire before taking piano lessons with Claudio Arrau and conducting ones with Clemens Krauss. In the latter part of his career he wrote music for the Swedish film industry. Is von Koch's music worth resurrecting? BIS, who make a virtue of recording obscure Nordic repertoire, certainly think so; remarkably, there are no fewer than two world premières here.

Unusually for BIS this is a 24/48 download, rather than 24/44.1 or 24.96, and the disc is a CD rather than the customary SACD. Don’t think that means the sound isn’t up to the very high standards set by the company’s more recent releases, for it most certainly is. That’s very clear in the frisky Allegro moderato that introduces Symphony No. 3. Von Koch likes jazzy, often scampering, tunes that lurk in the lower strings, while conductor Per Hammarström ensures the movement’s staccato climaxes are delivered with maximum impact. The Adagio espressivo, now brooding, now wistful, has a quiet simplicity that’s most attractive; as for the closing Allegro agitato it romps home in a burst of energy that underlines the score’s vitality and sense of purpose.

When it comes to unfamiliar music I try to suggest some comparables as a guide for inquisitive listeners. Rob Barnett has a few suggestions, but anyone who knows Larsson's symphonies - his Second in particular - will find von Koch's music is cut from much the same cloth. Not surprising, perhaps, as they're compatriots and almost exact contemporaries. At times von Koch's Third also reminds me of Bernard Herrmann in general and his zip-and-slash score for North by Northwest in particular. And that's not damning with faint praise, as I'm not one of those who regards film composers as an inferior breed. That said, Larsson's writing does have an authority and flair - a consistency of imagination, if you like - that really makes him stand out in this company.

That's not to suggest von Koch's oeuvre is without originality or substance - far from it. For instance the Andante of his the Sinfonia seria may seem a tad measured at first but it does have some perky woodwind writing. And then there's the Moderato, its pensive mood punctuated with flashes of fun and feistiness. Indeed, both von Koch and Larsson have an irrepressible sense of humour that never fails to delight. All that ebullience spills over into the Allegro, which has a strong, sweeping pulse and some bracing passages for brass. It's such an open-hearted piece, and that's reflected in the unalloyed pleasure with which it's played.

Impulsi – the first part of a triptych that includes Echi and Ritmi – is a more trenchant affair. Even then those plucked strings are never far away, with moments of imperious splendour that recall Sibelius at his looming best. That said, von Koch can't keep a straight face for long; he invests the piece with a boisterous charm that’s most appealing. Not a front-rank score, perhaps, but a well constructed and engaging one that doesn’t outstay its welcome. Ditto the bouncy Nordiskt capriccio, which boasts some very muscular writing for the timps, not to mention a bright blaze of brass that brings to mind Janáček’s Sinfonietta. Now that really is a fun piece, and one I’d love to hear in the concert hall.

These are lively, good-natured scores, well played and recorded; more, please.

Dan Morgan

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