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CD Review

Franz Berwald

Orchestral Works

  • Reminiscences of the Norwegian Mountains
  • Konzertstück for Bassoon and Orchestra
  • Wettlauf
  • Ernste and heitere Grillen
  • Drottningen av Golconda: Overture
  • Elfenspiel
Patrik Håkansson, bassoon
Gävle Symphony Orchestra/Petri Sakari
Naxos 8.555370 DDD 55:24
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The music of Franz Berwald (1796-1868) is the most durable to have been composed in his native Sweden during the 19th century. At different times in his life he managed an orthopedic institute, a glassworks, and a sawmill. At other times he was a full-time composer. Fate was slow and fickle in giving the composer his due, and typically, it was only after his death that his achievements began to recognized at home. His beautiful Septet in B Flat has been recorded several times, and now there are multiple competing versions of his four symphonies. (His operas have yet to receive much attention, however.) His shorter orchestral works – not all of them "tone poems" in spite of Naxos' designation to the contrary – have served more often as fillers for recordings of the symphonies. Here they are enjoyably collected together on a single disc, rather like a smörgåsbord.

Berwald's style is not obviously nationalistic. Even Reminiscences of the Norwegian Mountains has few of the Scandinavian fingerprints one notes in the music of Grieg, for example. Four of these works date from the 1840s. Apart from the aforementioned Reminiscences, these are Wettlauf ("Foot-Race" or simply "Racing"), Ernste und heitere Grillen ("Serious and Joyful Fancies") and Elfenspiel ("Play of the Elves"). The composers who come to mind most frequently in these works are Mendelssohn, Weber, and maybe Schumann. The relatively early (1827) Konzertstück quotes Henry Bishop's "Home, Sweet Home" (did you know that this is an operatic aria? So says Richard Whitehouse in his booklet notes), and is quite redolent of Weber. The opera Drottningen av Golconda ("The Queen of Golconda") was completed in 1864. Its compact overture alludes to several of the opera's melodies without turning into a mere potpourri. Throughout, the music is expertly constructed and orchestrated, and in it, there are occasional lightning flashes of something greater than just talent. Berwald might not have been a "great" composer, but he comes close to it much of the time.

Petri Sakari is another one of those young Finnish conductors who are so good at what they do. (Is it something in Finland's water?) Since 2000, he has been the Gävle Symphony Orchestra's Chief Conductor. The orchestra, which has been in existence since 1912, is a fine regional ensemble. The performances can be a little hoarse – a certain tonal refulgence is lacking here – but they don't get in the way of the music. The same can be said for the engineering, which seems honest.

Copyright © 2005, Raymond Tuttle