Much of Gösta Nystroem’s (1890-1966) music is associated with the sea. I discovered this Swedish composer by way of his Sinfonia del Mare (Symphony No.3) (1946-8) and the symphonic poem Arctic Ocean (Ishavet or La mer arctique) (1924-5). I was impressed by this music which fuses a ‘Northern’ imagination with a subtle balance of modernism and post-romanticism. Most of Nystroem’s works that I have heard have been orchestral.
The song cycle presented here is Sånger vid havet (Songs by the Sea) and was composed in 1942. It sets a variety of poems, all with the sea as their subject. There is a huge diversity of mood in these songs. The opening number, Out in the Skerries, has a luminous quality that reflects the arctic light. Nocturne is no restful number, with its “looming giants [that] guard the silver spray”. It is not scary, but eerie and deeply melancholic. The vocal part and piano accompaniment are a perfect fusion of sound. The Song of the Sea is not quite a John Ireland nautical romp (Sea Fever) but is a good evocation of the sailor’s relationship with the ocean. And it is possibly an autobiographical statement by the composer himself with a meditation on the lines “Here is my home/In the fatherly embrace by the rush of the sea…” The poet brings a reflective musical setting to I built a home near wide seas which temporises between his desire to live by the seashore and his acceptance of the harsh reality that this may be sheer escapism on his (and the poet’s) behalf. A very powerful number. The final song The moon I wait is an authoritative statement on man’s relationship with the sea. The ocean is a comforter even after death.
This is a beautiful song-cycle that moves and challenges. I understand that it was arranged for soloist and orchestra. I have not heard it but imagine that it will be excellent.
Benna Moe (1897-1983) is a name that is new to me. The liner notes give a good biography but say precious little about the songs themselves. For the record, Moe was a Danish composer, organist, pianist, cinema organ player and singer. Around 1944 she wrote two sets of songs to texts by the Swedish doctor and psychotherapist Iwan Bratt (1881-1946). These are delightful and exhibit a strong melodic inventiveness. Some of them tend towards what might be described as the Ivor Novello style. Listen for example to the opening two songs, The Brook and Let me be with you. Great songs but sometimes nudging towards the world of ‘popular’ rather than ‘art’ song. Yet the boundaries are often blurred. There is a depth to some of these melodies that defies categorisation. I am conscious that Benna Moe has not pursued any modernist influences. All these songs look back to an earlier period and are none the worse for that.
I guess that Grieg’s Lieder are not as well-known as they ought to be. Most music enthusiasts remain content with his Piano Concerto, Peer Gynt, the Holberg Suite and the ubiquitous piano piece, Wedding Day at Trolhaugen. One song that does seem to have caught the imagination is Jeg elsker dig (I love you). More often heard in its arrangement for singer and orchestra or as an extended piano solo, this little work seems to epitomise nineteenth century Scandinavian Romanticism. It is found in Grieg’s settings of Hans Christian Andersen’s poems in Hjertets Melodier, (Melodies of the Heart), op.5. The equally lovely Two brown eyes I have recently seen is also included in this album. These two songs were composed when Grieg was ‘courting’ Nina Hagerup (1845-1935) and were completed shortly before the couple became engaged. You do not understand the eternal movement of the waves and My thought is a mighty mountain are less-well-known but both are splendid songs that nod towards Schubert’s Lied. These are stormier and have interesting accompaniments with some novel key changes.
I have long admired and enjoyed the orchestral music of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. I have made the occasional excursions into his piano music and chamber works but somehow the songs have eluded me. Glancing at the catalogue in Robert Layton’s biography of Sibelius it suggests that there are plenty to have a go at. They are presented in cycles, groups, albums and single songs. Ricklander and Penderup have chosen to perform two numbers each from two sets of songs: op.36 and op.37. The first group is deemed by commentators to be the composer’s most popular settings. They were written around 1900 at the same time as the great Symphony No.1. Svarta rosor (Black Roses). It has dark overtones matching the words For grief has roses black as night and presents a conceit of a rose bush growing in the lover’s heart, thorns and all. The second number Säf, säf, susa is translated as Sigh, sigh, sedge. The piano provides a beautiful harp-like accompaniment for this diminutive Wagnerian tragedy that evokes the despair of a young lady, which leads to her suicide.
I enjoyed The First Kiss op.37, no.1 with its highly romanticised dialogue between the singer and the evening star. Critics have suggested that this song derives from the clichés of the ‘salon’ rather than from ‘deeply felt experience’. The final song on the CD The girl returned from meeting her lover is another one of Sibelius’s mini Wagner operas. Leyton (op.cit.) suggests that it is unworthy of the composer, yet in this performance at least, I sense the dramatic implications of this dazzling vocal drama. Altogether a good little introduction (for me) to Sibelius’s vocal music.
All these songs are wonderfully performed by Ulla Ricklander, mezzo-soprano and Cathrine Penderup, piano. The sound quality of the disc is ideal. Less so are the liner notes. There is precious little information about the songs. For example, Gösta Nystroem’s biographical details are given but, apart from a brief mention of the orchestral version of Sånger vid havet, nothing about the music. I might be getting short-sighted but I couldn’t find a total timing for this CD. If my calculations are correct, it is only a meagre 44 minutes of music.
In the round, this is a great CD featuring an ideal introductory recital of Nordic or Scandinavian song. Four countries are represented: Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. The programme is imaginative and varied. From the pot-boilers by Grieg to the sea-moods of Nystroem, it is enjoyable from the first bar to the last.
Contents Gösta NYSTROEM (1890-1966) Sånger vid havet, Songs by the Sea (1942)
Ute i skären (Ebba Lindqvist), Out in the Skerries [3:37]
Nocturne (Edith Södergran), Nocturne [3:51]
Havets visa (Hjalmar Robert Gullberg), The Song of the Sea [2:27]
Jag har ett hem vid havet (Ragnar Jändel), I built a home near wide seas [5:11]
Jag vänter månen (Hjalmar Robert Gullberg), The moon I wait [2:46] Benna MOE (1897-1983) Op.30, Songs to Texts by Iwan Bratt (1944)
Bäcken, The Brook [1:50]
Låt mig vara hos dig, Let me be with you (1944) [2:57]
Op.31, Songs to Texts by Iwan Bratt (1944)
Ett barn är fött, A child is born [1:29]
Liv, Life [0:43]
Sök inte runt i världen, Don´t search around the world [1:08]
Golgatha, Golgotha (Calvary) [2:16] Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907) Hjertets Melodier, opus 5 (Hans Christian Andersen) (1865)
To brune Øine jeg nyelig saae, Two brown eyes I have recently seen [1:02]
Du fatter ei Bølgernes evige Gang, You do not understand the eternal movement of the waves [2:09]
Jeg elsker Dig, I love you [1:26]
Min Tanke er et mægtigt Fjeld, My thought is a mighty mountain [1:34] Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Svarta rosor, op.36, no.1 (Ernst Josephson), Black Roses (1899) [2:15]
Säf, säf, susa, op.36, no.4 (Gustaf Fröding), Sigh, rushes, sigh (1900) [2:40]
Den första kyssen, op.37, no.1 (J. L. Runeberg), The first kiss (1900) [1:52]
Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte (J. L. Runeberg), The girl returned from meeting her lover (1901), op.37, no.5 [3:12]
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