Friday, October 12, 2012

Symphonic Smörgåsbord: Berwald, Stenhammar and Nielsen

A Smörgåsbord similar to the ones my Swedish grandfather used to lay out for the family every Christmas Eve.

This season, the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert's direction embarks on a multi-year project to perform and record the works of Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). 

Read the excellent review the first concert received here.

Although I had passing acquaintance with this music, I decided to review Nielson's symphonies again and immediately heard some things which reminded me of music by other Scandinavian composers who had been influences on Nielsen, some acknowledged by him. What I've attempted to do here is assemble something of a musical smörgåsbord for your delectation, education and entertainment. In the process, I hope to make a few points unmistakably clear:

1. There really are composers of past epochs, who despite exceptional talent, rarely had their works performed because they were considered “derivative” or not original enough. In art generally the drive for originality has often led to absurd extremes. In music, the cult of originality for its own sake alas is a dead end road which leads to as many pointless destinations as adapting the banal and boring to rote formal manipulation or system. But given the exceptional quality of today's orchestral musicians, in particular their freedom from former traditions and manners of playing their instruments or of preferences or concentrations on certain styles of music, and that the musical world and audiences are changing enough to become more venturesome, we fully expect to see some of these presently neglected or unfamiliar gems surfaced and given a new life in a hopefully less prejudiced environment.

2. There is an artistic detachment, both emotional and technical, evident in much of the music I want to present here. While these composers are routinely classed among the romantics (a term as we have seen is directly related to fictional literature), and indeed they composed from the 1840's into the 1920's, covering the entire romantic period, none of them are participating in the apparently groundbreaking and revolutionary movements that engrossed many of the more familiar romantic composers. Almost despite the allures of romanticism, these composers are all in one way or another instead the stylistic descendents of the patriarchs of the classical symphony (the First Vienna School); Haydn and Schubert in particular, with notable steals, where appropriate, from Beethoven and very occasionally from Mozart.

3. I think it would be a mistake to regard the work of these composers, as Scandinavian or Nordic in style or feeling or having anything much to do with Denmark or Sweden. They were born there and may have plied their craft as composers in their homelands, but each of them is very much going along with the eclectic nature of Scandinavian culture as it has been, extending back for a thousand years at least. I want to suggest that these composers are themselves guests at a European continental musical smörgåsbord at which they pick and choose elements which they will use in a variety of often ingenious, clever and even humorous juxtapositions not to be found among the continental romantics. Since their intention is to maintain their emotional separateness, rather than involve themselves directly or personally with their music, none of it is autobiographical to any significant degree. First and foremost they intend an entertainment that is formalized in the familiar form of a symphony, but that takes a detached position regarding mood and explores aspects of the sound of choirs of instruments within the orchestra seldom heard in the symphonies of others. Their music creates spaces, or suggestions of physical energy and movement of various kinds, as musical abstractions. I would even guess that while some of it sounds easy enough, a lot of it is probably more difficult than the standard repertoire. 
Franz Berwald

So let's begin with Franz Berwald (1796-1868) [BEAR-valdt], the first great Swedish composer of any note, whose life covers that of Schubert, except that Berwald lived forty years longer. He came of a musical family and wrote all four of his symphonies within four years from his arrival in Vienna in 1841. So he wrote them in his late forties and in Vienna and they may be rightly regarded as a kind of set of souvenirs. Each of them lasts around half an hour. They are structurally tight, feature some techniques borrowed form the classical composers, specifically the writing for woodwind choirs alternating with running themes in octaves in the strings, punctuated by often quite astounding brass part writing and extensive use of tympani.

And in these symphonies we hear Berwald's contribution to what the other composers would also follow; the use of far wider ranges of possible chord and key progressions, leading the listener to wonder what difference a starting or ending key may matter or whether a theme really needs to be memorable as much as to project the right mood required by the composer to elicit the particular intellectual or sensual effect on the listener, again with that overall sense of reserve and detachment from all of it.

Symphony #1 in g minor "Sinfonie Sérieuse"

I. Allegro con energia
II. Adagio maestoso
III. Stretto
IV. Finale. Adagio - Allegro molto

Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

Performed superbly by Helsingborgs Symfoniorkester conducted by Okko Kamu
Berwald's Sinfonie Sérieuse was premiered on December 2, 1843, in Stockholm, conducted by his cousin, Johan Fredrik Berwald. The Berwalds were a musical family in Sweden going back many generations. But this only performance, it was said, was not very good. I hardly think considering the intricacies in the music that it could have been. From the start, Berwald's style seems ... peculiar, until one begins to hear it through a lens of proper detachment. The performance didn't help Berwald and it was the only one of his symphonies to be performed during his lifetime. Why are we not surprised? He's clearly no Beethoven. But does that mean his work is no good? Sometimes time seems required. It's also required of the players that they be both precise and dispassionate; play exactly what the music says at exactly the required volume, etc.

Berwald spent years in Berlin and Vienna, and he wrote in those places outside his native Stockholm, so there's nothing particularly Swedish intended. It's comparable to the symphonies of Mendelssohn and Schumann, but Berwald is already stretching the envelope.

Besides detachment Berwald is a bit of a wise-acre, you'll hear all kinds of things. This is also supposed to be a minor key symphony, but that's ambiguous nearly at all times and the movement ends on a triumphant major and it doesn't seem to matter whether the final key is even related to the key in which the piece began.

Symphony #2 in D-Major "Sinfonie Capricieuse" 
I. Allegro
II. Andante
III. Allegro assai

Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, tenor trombone, 2 bass trombones, timpani and strings.

Performed again superbly by Helsingborgs Symfoniorkester conducted by Okko Kamu.

This one has a brief vaguely Haydnesque introduction, then the pranks begin. You'll begin to ask yourself whether he doesn't intend his audiences to laugh out loud. These composers are I believe intended in part to be taken as pranksters and I don't see why anyone wouldn't chuckle at a lot of what Berwald has devised to go on in this work. I even hear phrases that remind me of Ives' first symphony. Much of what Berwald does can be called zany. If you're too serious, you'll probably just blow it off as really not all that good, and in so doing miss half the fun. Also notice that when Berwald, and later the others too as we get to them, are not overly fond of an extended ending to a movement; when it's done, it's done. 

Symphony #3 in C-Major "Sinfonie Singulière"

I. Allegro fuocoso in C major
II. Adagio - Scherzo (Allegro assai) - Adagio (in G major)
III. Finale: Presto in C minor

Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings.

Performed again superbly by Helsingborgs Symfoniorkester conducted by Okko Kamu.

Widely regarded as the best of the lot, there are things in this symphony that will seem startling, especially where he allows a theme to slide through a series of unpredicted progressions. One wonders whether anyone would have really understood the cleverness of many of his little episodic creations whether they be listeners or members of the orchestra. Sometimes one vaguely hears Berlioz and at other times someone equally unlikely. It's quite clear to me that for his time, Berwald was an exceptionally gifted orchestrator. The second movement stretches the regular form in that it places the scherzo inside the andante! There's also a big Haydnesque surprise along the way.

Symphony #4 in E-flat Major "Sinfonie Naïve"

I. Allegro risoluto
II. Adagio
III. Scherzo: Allegro molto
IV. Finale: Allegro vivace 

Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings.

Performed again superbly by Helsingborgs Symfoniorkester conducted by Okko Kamu.

This symphony may be telling a story, but it isn't as necessary as that it maintain symphonic form. Perhaps then it's just exploring a range of emotions characterized as naïve. This work, written in the mid-1840's contains besides the usual bows to Haydn and Schubert, phrases and orchestration one would hear in Berloz. One wonders whether Berwald had occasion to discover anything left in Berlin or Vienna by the peripatetic French composer.

Now then, well perhaps you've already had enough. Well, not quite yet. Let's hear a work that was written ten years later as the composer was in his late fifties, a piano concerto this time. I'll note ahead of time that this isn't really like a Chopin or Schumann concerto as much as a pastiche of one. The best possible way to play it is as if one were playing one written by the other composers but again with precision, a little sparkle and strict fidelity to the written notes, regardless of how weird the phrase might at first seem to both the fingers and the ears. Here it is played rather wonderfully by Niklas Sivelöv. Again the Helsingborgs Symfoniorkester is conducted by Okko Kamu.

Piano Concerto in D Major (1855)

[Part 1] I. Allegro con brio
[Part 2] II. Andantino
[Part 3] III. Allegro molto
The movements are intended to run right into each other so the whole things is really one long movement. Lots of baseless fluff? Well hey, it's at least as interesting as some other more often heard concertos. Anyway I wanted to present some idea of how this composer approached using the piano. He was certainly under the spell of certain famous touring pianists of his day, no doubt hoping this effort would be picked-up by some virtuoso. How nice that we have these less favoured gems around to be played by more competent orchestra players and really fine pianists using far better pianos, etc.

Wilhelm Stenhammar

In Stockholm, about three years after Franz Berwald breathed his last, Carl Wilhelm Eugen Stenhammar [STEN-haw-mar] entered the world. Wilhelm Stenhammer (1871-1927) would write two symphonies, two piano concertos and a host of other works including chamber music and piano sonatas. More of it is being played than ever before, but still little of it is widely known. Hey, get in on the ground floor. Stenhammer was among those who went to Berlin for a musical education and fell under the influence of Wagner and Bruckner among others. He was a conductor of the Göteborgs Symfoniker, the first professional orchestra in Sweden and was able to program many works by native Swedish composers. We may yet hear from some of them, who knows? In the meantime, let's have a listen to his symphonies. You'll recognize immediately the same writing for woodwind choirs juxtaposed against string phrases, occasionally quite stunning brass effects, and less whimsy than Berwald used, but certainly enough to produce convincing and occasionally stunning orchestral sound.

Symphony #1 in F Major (1902-3)

I. Tempo Molto Tranquillo - Allegro
II. Andante Con Moto
III. Allegro Amabile
IV. Allegro Non Tanto - Ma Con Fuoco - Tranquillo

I could not find the scoring for this one; it takes a big orchestra. Part of the reason is that Stenhammar “withdrew” this work later on, which is like disowning a child one isn't pleased with. Good thing the scores managed to survive. I actually like this one better than his second symphony; maybe it's the high violins against subdued horns which opens and closes the first movement, and the end of the symphony as well. The second movement is a gravely beautiful thing too even with its blatant steals from Brahms, oh well. Maybe it's the pace of the scherzo movement. There's plenty that traces right back to Wagner in here too. This symphony is a little sappier than the other one, less like some from his heroes, Sibelius or Nielsen in tone, but it's still breezier than any Bruckner. This work still manages to preserves that reserve, that detachment from the really serious, almost because there are some things in life that are more serious than mere drama. He does some amazing things with unorthodox progressions too, as had Berwald. But Stenhammar apparently considered this first effort too old fashioned; that he needed to get with the latest innovators. In the long run it hardly matters. It's played here by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov.  We are certainly grateful for performances like these, else we wouldn't be able to get to know this soave symphony. Certainly more orchestras need to play it.

Symphony #2 in g minor Op. 34 (1911-1915)

I. Allegro energico
II. Andante
III. Scherzo: Allegro, ma non troppo presto
IV. Finale: Sostenuto - Allegro vivace

Scored for the usual large orchestra, couldn't get more precise without consulting a score. You'll certainly notice quite a few blatant steals from Sibelius, as if this were written just after Sibelius' second symphony from which it certainly draws inspiration. The other composer who may come to mind is Edward Elgar. Stenhammar is said to have used Swedish folk and medieval church music motifs throughout. This symphony certainly has something a bit more commemorative or ceremonial about it. Even so, the reserve is somehow maintained; one is never quite of or in the music as much as one is asked merely to follow along or observe it as if from a distance either in time or circumstance. Perhaps its by the unexpected places the progressions may take one. This performance is conducted by Stig Westerberg and wonderfully played by the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Before getting to Nielsen, there's just one more striking instance of Stenhammar's artistry on the web that I wanted to include here, a spectacular performance of his Serenade in F Major Op 31 minus the now included second movement called Reverenza (you'll have to try and find it elsewhere). This original version of the Serenade was played live by the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester conducted by Herbert Blomstedt in 2005 at the Festival concert celebrating Norway's 100th year anniversary of political independence from Denmark and Sweden.

What this work reveals is a kind of missing link between the musical palettes of the Wagnerians with which Stenhammar studied and for a time greatly admired, and new ideas springing from native talent in Scandinavia, particularly Sibelius. You'll notice obvious steals from each plate. But much in keeping with the pick and choose of the Smörgåsbord table of available orchestral sounds, everything Stenhammar chooses is passed through his predisposition for unexpected chord progressions, sliding tone centres and the sense of blithe detachment from even very deep or heartfelt harmonic juxtapositions which he shares with Berwald and Nielsen. Much of the time the emotional reactions produced might fit the romantic classification if we are discussing the sense of dramatic or fictional scenes being created and dissolved as if by magic; enchanted, or dreamy. Sibelius did not create in a vacuum nor were his innovations ignored. Stenhammar, only six years younger than Sibelius, who however did not outlive him, was clearly a beneficiary, as are we.

Serenade Op 31 (original version) (1911-13)

I. Overtura
: Allegrissimo

II.Conzonetta: Tempo di valse, un poco tranquillo
III.Scherzo: Presto
IV.Nottorno: Andante sostenuto
V.Finale: Tempo moderato

Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) has so far emerged as Denmark's greatest composer. He wrote a lot of music that has yet to be widely performed though his six symphonies and more are about to see a revival. He came from a large but poor peasant family in Nørre Lyndelse near Sortelung south of Odense on the Danish island of Funen. I like this house, with its thatched roof, said to have been his childhood home. From a rough and tumble childhood life with few prospects, he entered the Royal Danish Conservatory in Copenhagen at the age of 19, staying for a couple years where he didn't do that well except that he managed to learn to play the violin better. But he did study composition with Niels Gade who we will probably have occasion to discuss on some future post as his work is interesting and relatively unknown, though it seems Nielsen liked Gade as a friend better than for his music, oh well. By 1889 at the age of 24, Nielsen managed to accomplish something that poor Jean Sibelius had very much wanted to do, to play violin in an orchestra. Instead Sibelius would write one of the greatest violin concertos of all time. Meanwhile Nielsen would play violin with the Royal Danish Orchestra for 16 years until his fortieth year in 1905. A lot else went on in his life which played a part in his compositions; he married a fiercely independent artist, a sculptor, had to raise three children along with his other duties as his wife was frequently absent on location to do her commissioned art which brought in badly needed funds. Throughout his life though, Nielsen seems to have been one who made the best out of any situation. This happy go lucky streak runs through his music like something emotionally unsinkable. During that period, the turn of the 19th into the turbulent 20th centuries, there could still be work composing music for special events, theatrical productions or cantatas. His income was supplemented by a pension after 1901, he was 36. But overwork and other strains were beginning to take their toll. After a serious heart attack in 1925, he was 60 years old, he curtailed much work, wrote his childhood memoir and died in 1931 at the age of 66. We wont go into the details of his eventually unhappy marriage or the cares of his strenuous life, as we're here to discuss his six amazing symphonies. Unlike some that were written during this period and after, Nielsen's symphonies each take around a half hour to perform. After digesting the works identified on this post and combining them with the seven of Sibelius' output, you have a total of 19 wonderful symphonies from the North to get to know as old friends.

Nielsen's childhood home
Symphony#1 in g minor, Op. 7 (1891-92)
I. Allegro orgoglioso
II. Andante
III. Allegro comodo — Andante sostenuto — Tempo I
IV. Finale. Allegro con fuoco

Scored for 3 flutes, (Flute 1 doubles piccolo in Movement 4), 2 oboes,
2 clarinets in B-flat, 2 bassoons, 4 horns (1 and 2 in E-flat, G, and C basso; 3 and 4 in B-flat basso and F), 2 trumpets in E-flat and C, 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass), Timpani and Strings.

We shall be hearing Herbert Blomstedt conduct the San Francisco Symphony for most of this music.

He's 31 and he writes his first symphony and from the outset it is different, a jagged theme in an uncertain home key of g minor and the thing is launched on its way, with many reserved and odd by turns moods created by his imaginative orchestration. It's all within the tight confines of traditional classical symphonic forms which he always seems to have preferred even as he stretched them in new ways unheard of before, unless that is you had never heard Berwald or Stenhammar.

Symphony #2 Defire Temperamenter, "The Four Temperaments", Op. 16 (1901-1902)

I. Allegro collerico (Choleric)
II. Allegro comodo e flemmatico (Phlegmatic)
III. Andante malincolico [sic] (Melancholic)
IV. Allegro sanguineo — Marziale (Sanguine)

Scored for 3 flutes, 1st flute doubles piccolo, 2 oboes, 2nd oboe doubles English horn, 2 clarinets in A, B-flat, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in F, 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass), Tuba, Timpani and Strings.

When you have all that brass into the mix, you can create some really fine walls of sound to use as more characters to play around with. There are tremendous psychological factors under all this music, but along with all that is the cool detachment that also allows unsettling and upstart motives and phrases. The playing has to be really first rate, no excessive vibrato or extra colour as he has written plenty into the score as it is. The shifting of tonalities, something we've observed since Berwald, is another factor he uses to take the audience by surprise.

Symphony #3 "Sinfonia Espansiva", Op. 27 (1910-1911)

I. Allegro espansivo
[PART 1] 
II. Andante pastorale
[PART 2] 

III. Allegretto un poco
[PART 3]
IV. Finale: Allegro
[PART 4]


Scored for 3 flutes, 3rd flute doubles piccolo, 3 oboes, 3rd oboe doubles English horn, 3 clarinets in A and B-flat, 3 bassoons, 3rd bassoon doubles contrabassoon, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in F, 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass), Tuba, Timpani, Soprano solo, Mvt. II only (replaceable by 4th clarinet), Bass solo, Mvt. II only (replaceable by 4th trombone) and Strings.

This symphony is “expansive” but lasts only slightly longer than the first two. The usual Sibelius cribbed idioms occasionally float through it, but as is usual the treatments are highly original. Times had changed enough that these kinds of oddities, many clearly reminiscent of Berwald's techniques are and were more readily accepted by Nielsen's audiences, especially in Denmark.

Symphony #4 "The Inextinguishable", Op. 29 (1916)

I. Allegro —
II. Poco allegretto —
III. Poco adagio quasi andante —
IV. Allegro

Intended to be played without breaks as one continuous movement.

Scored for 3 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 sets of timpani, and strings.

Written during World War I, Nielsen's way of coping with the tragedy of the Great War was to look beyond it and consider the will to life itself as the inspiration for his latest greatest symphony, the inextinguishable being life itself; the answer to death has always been life itself.

Symphony No.5, Op. 50 (1920-22)

I. Tempo giusto—Adagio non troppo
II. Allegro—Presto—Andante un poco tranquillo—Allegro

Scored for 3 flutes (third doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, snare drum, celesta, and strings.

Paavo Järvi conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, recorded during a live performance at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 17 April 2004.

Nielsen said, "it is littered with false climaxes at every turn." Always keep your audiences guessing where you're finally going to land. This was the break from the previous four symphonies, living in their traditional symphonic spaces. Wonder if the war had something to do with Nielsen's determination to strive to use new methods? He was in his fifties and perhaps he begin to realize time was running out. We are in the range of techniques involved with much that is modern in orchestral conception now, bi-tonality, "deformation procedures" suggested by James Hepokoski regarding musical modernism: breakthrough deformation, introduction-coda frame, episodes within developmental space, various strophic / sonata hybrids and multi-movement forms in a single movement. You also hear the snare drum which is to figure in many 20th century orchestral compositions, a symbol for war, militarism, totalitarianism and oppression. Nielsen could certainly find within his homespun complexity a place for cynical comment on modern times that has become a trademark of many Soviet era composers since the Great War and its aftermath. We are now at the vantage point of cinema orchestration; symphonic scores and orchestras playing soundtracks for documentaries or other dramas based on modern world events amd life currents. Nonetheless, there are still places where something hopeful sounds through; a searching for transcendence, a way to climb out and above the wearisome.

SymphonyNo. 6 "Sinfonia semplice", no opus number (1924)

I. Tempo giusto -- Lento, ma non troppo -- Tempo I
II. Humoreske. Allegretto -- Allegro -- Tempo I
III. Proposta seria. Adagio
IV. Thema mit Variationen. Allegro -- Thema. Allegretto un poco -- Variationen 1-9 -- Fanfare

Scored for 2 flutes, 1st flute doubles piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in F, 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass), Tuba, Timpani, Glockenspiel, Xylophone, Triangle, Cymbals, Snare drum, Bass drum and Strings.

Sinfonieorchester (Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra), Paavo Järvi, conducting.

Some have suggested this is a partially autobiographical work involving his heart attacks which led to his eventual retirement. In subtle ways it looks both forward and backward. This performance allows us to see the orchestra at work rendering this foremost modern work with brilliance and energy.

I want to thank you for taking the time to consider the still largely unknown works of these Nordic masters with me. I hope you have truly enjoyed the experience!


Monday, October 1, 2012

Violetta Egorova, piano


The following links are presented here without further comment. Enjoy!

W A Mozart Rondo a-moll, K511 

( Music festival "Days of Austrian Culture in Moscow" in The State Historical Museum, Parade Hall, Red Square. Posted on May 3, 2011 )

W A Mozart Sonata #13 in F K332 Allegro

Robert Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op. 26 (1839) 
( at Teatro Musco Gravina di Catania - 11 Febbraio 2012 )

Robert Schumann Sonate g moll Op. 22 (1865-8)
[PART 1] 1. So rasch wie moglich ("As quickly as possible" - however, near the end, Schumann
writes "Schneller" and then "Noch Schneller", meaning "Faster" and "Still faster")  
[PART 2] 2. Andantino. Getragen (Adagio)
[PART 3] 3. Scherzo. Sehr rasch und markiert
4. Rondo. Presto
( Recorded Live Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition,
Maurice Abravanel Hall of the Symphony Hall
Salt Lake City, UT,USA  1991 )

Robert Schumann Fantasie Op. 17 in C Major
1.  Durchaus fantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen
2.  Mäßig Durchaus energisch
3. Langsam getragen  
Auditorium RAI Palermo - posted 7 April, 2013 

Franz Liszt Paganini Etude #6
( Recorded Live Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition,
Maurice Abravanel Hall of the Symphony Hall
Salt Lake City, UT,USA  1991 )

Franz Liszt Mephisto Valse

P I Tchailkovsky Valse from Ballet "Battleship Potemkin" 
in transcription for piano by Violetta Egorova
Encore at Auditorium Palermo - posted 25 March, 2013

Anatoly Liadov "The Music Box"

Alexander Scriabin  
Prelude Op 11 #2
Prelude Op 11 #6
Prelude Op 11 #9
Prelude Op 11 #10


Edvard Grieg, "Carnival Scene" from Pictures of Country Life

Franz Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsody N.9 "Carnival in Pest" 

Sergei Rachmaninoff, Polka de W. R.
live in Bucharest, Romania 2013

For further information, Violetta's official website is here.