The first volume of ‘Music Around the Baltic Sea’ is
an interesting mixture of relatively little known Scandinavian music.
The best known piece is probably Carl Nielsen’s Little Suite Op.1
and the Suite Champêtre by Sibelius is possibly one of
the master’s lesser-played works.
The first work is the Five Pieces for Strings
by Heino Eller. To most British and American listeners this composer
is probably an unknown quantity. So a few words on his life and work
may give some help in allowing people to situate this excellent piece
for string orchestra. The fact that a composer is unknown is no excuse
to ignore a minor masterpiece.
Heino Eller was born in Tartu, Estonia on 7th
March 1887. He had a fairly typical musical education – studying locally
both theory and violin. He played with a number orchestras and also
gave solo recitals. He studied the violin at St Petersburg Conservatory
and then digressed into the field of law for three years. Further study
at Petrograd Conservatory gave him qualification in composition.
Much of his life was spent teaching at the Tartu Higher
School for Music. Names associated with this foundation include Eduard
Tubin and Olav Roots. In 1940 he was awarded the position as Chair of
Composition at Tallinn Conservatory where perhaps his most famous student
turned out to be Arvo Pärt.
The compositions of Eller include much for the orchestra
– both symphonic poems and symphonies of which he wrote three. He composed
a fair amount of chamber music, including at least five string quartets
and over a hundred pieces for piano solo.
His music is hard to define. Based on the present piece
there is nothing difficult about his language. Someone has written that
the keywords for his music is ‘northern’ and ‘fresh.’ He never abandoned
tonality; but introduced various diverse elements into his style, including
impressionism and Estonian folk music. He held onto basically classical
forms for many of his works. There is certainly evidence for consummate
craftsmanship and fine orchestral technique.
The Five Pieces for Orchestra make a fine introduction
to this composer’s music. There are considerable echoes of the music
of Edward Grieg here, especially the Holberg Suite. The music
was originally composed for pianoforte and was given in this arrangement
by the composer in 1953.
The romance is full of melancholy – one is not sure
whether it is dealing with folk traditions or the composer’s reflections
on personal events. It is a fine piece that well deserves to become
well known. The remainder of the movements are attractive if not particularly
profound. The fourth piece, the Lullaby is quite beguiling with its
almost Elgarian charm. The Love Song perhaps lacks the intensity we
may have expected, however it is quite seductive in its excellent balance
of string tone. And to be fair right at the end the passion does actually
come through. It feels as if it may be a personal tone picture – who
knows? Lovely music that ought be played more.
[ See also Eller: Violin
Concerto and symphonic poems, piano
music, violin music]
Camerata Roman play the very first of Carl Nielsen’s
works to be given an opus number – the Little Suite Op. 1. The
only other works generally listed preceding this piece are a string
quartet in G minor and a string quintet in G major – although there
were many other ‘student’ works designed for various chamber ensembles.
The Little Suite was composed in 1888 when the composer was twenty-three
years old and is certainly a very accomplished work that reveals how
the skill derived from writing chamber music had passed into his work
for string orchestra. The suite has always been successful and popular
with Nielsen enthusiasts. It shows a certain individuality that was
to eventually develop into one of the great symphonic voices of the
The first movement is quite a dark little prelude.
There are only glimpses of light here – yet it is a sustained and well
thought out opening movement. The key to the work is however the intermezzo,
which is a clever, graceful waltz with flashes of humour. We are conscious
of the composer’s craftsmanship in every bar of this movement. The finale
is thoroughly enjoyable. There are references to the first movement
– but soon the mood changes and the music becomes broad and expansive
like northern skies.
Possibly the best introduction there is to the music
of Nielsen; the fact that it is an early work has nothing to do with
the case. It is played here with skill, wit and attention to detail.
We do not need to give any background history of the
life and works of Jean Sibelius.
The Suite Champêtre was composed between
the Fifth and Six Symphonies in 1921. It was part of a series of largely
indifferent works written at this time. The others were the Three
Pieces Op.96, the Suite Mignonne Op.98 and the Suite Caractéristique
Op.100. It is not really that the music is bad, it is just that is seems
to be light years away from the symphonic masterpieces either side of
it. The first movement reminds me of a Tchaikovskian ballet score in
its rhythm and colourings. However it is totally average if not banal
music. The Mélodie élégiaque is marginally better,
with some attempt at giving it a ‘northern’ colouring. However, it lacks
a sense of purpose. The last movement is the Dance and that is hardly
a piece of music to excite bodily movement. The whole suite is an example
of how it is possible for a great composer to give totally indifferent
music to the world. Strangely the sleeve notes refer to these three
movements as ‘small elegant masterpieces.’ Yet it is fair to say that
the Sibelius catalogue contains much that would be best left to the
experts and buffs. The best I can say about this piece is that it deserves
the occasional airing it probably does not get. It is well played by
The Divertimento Elegiaco by Ture Rangström
is a different matter altogether. Here is a work that is deserving of
our full attention. The piece was composed over the period of a few
days in August 1918. And perhaps some of the haunting qualities of the
music derive from thoughts of the last months of the First World War.
However there is actually a literary programme behind the divertimento.
It was through a study of the German romantic novelist and composer
E.T.A Hoffmann that gave this music its shape. There are four movements
to this work all of which have unusual titles – Preludio visionario,
Scherzo leggiero, Canzonetta malinconica and Giga Fantastic. The old
suite titles perhaps, modified by a romantic or perhaps even post romantic
This music is certainly dark hued; there is nothing
‘light’ about it. Even the Scherzo is anything but a playful joke! The
heart of the piece is the ‘painfully beautiful’ Canzonetta. This is
truly fine music.
This is a great CD. It should be popular with all those
who love string music. There is definitely a ‘Baltic’ flavour about
much of this music. With the exception of the Suite Champêtre
by Sibelius every work is a minor masterpiece. Camerata Roman rise to
the task of expressing this sometimes-difficult music in a way that
does justice to the composers.
The CD sleeve has an attractive watercolour of a sailing
boat on the Baltic. The programme notes are totally adequate and the
sound quality is excellent throughout. I am looking forward to reviewing
Volume Two of this delicious issue.