> HAMERIK Requiem etc. KONTRAPUNKT 32074/75 [JF]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Asger Hamerik (1843-1923)

Requiem Op. 34 (1887)
Quintetto Op. 6 (1862)
Concert Romance for 'cello and piano Op. 27 (1879)
Symphonie Spirtuelle for string orchestra Op. 38 (1897)
Minna Nyhus – mezzo-soprano
The Danish National Symphony Choir
The Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Ole Schmidt – conductor
Troels Svane Hermansen – ‘cello
Morten Mogensen – piano
Astrid Christensen –viola
Søren Elbaek –violin
Date or location of recording not supplied: Published 1991.
KONTRAPUNKT 32074/75 [CD1: 47:07; CD2 63:20]

 

The first thing to be said about this set is that it is a fine compendium of works from a composer who is largely unknown outside his homeland. It is a rare opportunity to hear four excellent but forgotten works. It causes both joy and sadness. Joy that a composer is rediscovered and presented to the musical public: sadness that such music has lain unheard for so long and is still unlikely to become well known to more than a very few people.

Asger Hamerik did not compose a great number of works; his list extends only to Opus 41. However within this relatively small catalogue there are some eight symphonies, four operas, five Nordic suites and a requiem lasting over three quarters of an hour. Kontrapunkt produced in 1991 this double CD containing four works from all periods of his life. This affords an overview of a musical career spanning some forty years. And not only is it a fine chronological survey it is also an interesting selection of different forms. We have the Requiem for choir, soloist and orchestra, an early Piano Quintet, a Concert Romance for ‘Cello and Piano and finally his 6th Symphony – the Symphonie Spirituelle.

A brief review of the composer's life and work will not go amiss as he is hardly well known to most listeners outside Denmark.

Asger Hamerik was born in the town of Frederiksberg, near the capital, Copenhagen on the 8th April 1843. Like so many composers it was his mother who provided the musical influences in the family. In fact it was her relatives who were to provide the impetus and inspiration to the young man. She was directly related to the Hartmanns and to the Hornemans. The Hartmanns in their turn were relations of the Gades and the Windings. So, the entire mid to late nineteenth century Danish music scene was virtually a family affair! Hamerik’s father was Professor of Church History at Copenhagen University.

The young Hamerik studied piano and theory of music with Gottfred Matthison-Hansen. Soon he was encouraged by Gade and Hartman to begin to study composition. Perhaps due to family connections it was not long before he was hearing his early compositions performed. As many young musicians did, he travelled to Germany and studied for a short time with Hans von Bülow; he made friends with Richard Wagner and with Hector Berlioz in France. During this period of history travel was impeded by the various wars taking place in Europe. His career was hardly settled. There were various short-term residences in Italy and France.

Perhaps the key event of his life was when he was offered the directorship of the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore. He had been recognised by the governors of that institution as a cosmopolitan musician and composer who had been well schooled in the academic musical practices of Europe and who was also an excellent composer. He was to remain in this post for 27 years.

At the beginning of the 20th century he retired from America and returned to Denmark. It is to be regretted that he composed little in the remaining twenty-three years of his life. He is said to have enjoyed a quiet retirement. He died on 13th July 1923 aged eighty. As mentioned above he produced quite a large output of works over the years from his early Ballade Roland to his Op.41 Folk Variations for String Orchestra (1912).

The Requiem Op.34 is commonly held to be his masterpiece. It is presented on the first of the two CDs in this collection.

The first work chronologically is the early Quintetto Op.6. This work was written when the composer was 19 years old. Hamerik himself claimed that it was never performed, and I understand that this is its first recording. The piece has an unusual five movements – opening with an adagio that seems to be quite ahead of its time harmonically. Soon the pace increases only to fall again into a wistful slower theme. There are many lovely tunes here. It is a piece that is full of contrasts. The slow movement is particularly beautiful, although the Presto and the Finale has much to interest and impress. It is definitely the work of a young man and speaks of innocence as well as vitality. Yet here and there we detect phrases and harmonies that seem to look forward to later days – not so much in the composer’s own oeuvre but in western music in general. This is a lovely work that deserves the recognition it is due. However I doubt if it will become known to any but a few cognoscenti; which is a pity. It would not be beyond the technique of amateur chamber ensembles.

The Concert Romance for Cello and Piano Op.27 is a lovely work – I wish that it would never stop; it is in fact heart-easing and heart-warming at one and the same time. It is a piece that could do well if it was taken into the repertoires of the well-known cellists. It was composed whilst the composer was on holiday in Copenhagen in 1878. The first performance was given a year later in Dresden. Danacord records brought out a lovely version of this piece with orchestral accompaniment as a part of their excellent Harmonious Families series (DACOCD526) However, this present version is equally attractive and gives a lovely impression of regret; a forgotten waltz perhaps. Lovely stuff. The cellist Troels Svane Hermansen and the pianist Morten Mogensen play with conviction. It would be so easy to mock a sentimental miniature like this.

In 1895 the Peabody Institute in Baltimore was due to celebrate the centenary of the birth of its founder. The choice of the governors was Asger Hamerik’s great masterpiece –the Requiem (1887). This fine work was composed whilst the composer was on holiday in the quiet fishing village of Chester on the coast of Nova Scotia. The programme notes point out that Hamerik was not himself a Roman Catholic. However he is known to have had a number of discussions with the incumbent of Chester Village.

This is a masterpiece. In many ways it is the great-unknown setting of the mass. Even if it nods to Berlioz for much of its inspiration it is still a completely original creation. The work has six sections – Requiem and Kyrie combined as Berlioz had done, Dies Irae, Offertorium, Sanctus and Agnus Die.

The Dies Irae is a war-horse. It is a full seventeen minutes of contrast. Great symphonic music. This shows that the composer was totally at home in all departments of his craft. There is a lovely alto solo in the Offertorio that seems to be quite in advance of its date. There is something almost operatic about this music. I cannot help but be reminded of Elgar's Sea Pictures. The mezzo-soprano Minna Nyhus has a voice to die for. Truly beautiful. The Sanctus is full of lovely brass fanfares – again reminiscent of Berlioz. All sorts of musical devices come into play here – great contrapuntal and fugal writing. The last section of the Requiem is the Agnus Dei. This is quietly restrained. The Symphonic nature of this work and of the Mass in general is reinforced by the references back to the ‘Requiem Eternam’ music at the commencement of this work. This work encompasses a number of styles – from plainsong through to the latest harmonic progressions and effective use of the romantic orchestra. Yet it is a unity – words and music are fused into one. And this is the way that any setting of the mass ought to be.

If this music were to be exposed on Classic FM it would knock the derivative Andrew Lloyd Webber Requiem setting off its pedestal.

The Symphonie Spirituelle was written to commemorate the silver jubilee of Asger Hamerik as director of the Peabody Institute in 1897. The work was directly influenced by a breakdown in industrial relations. The woodwind players in New York and Baltimore were on strike. So the composer was forced to compose this work for strings only. It has been one of the few pieces by Hamerik to gain a reputation in the concert halls. It is difficult to pinpoint influences in this work. Perhaps it is possible to relate it to Schumann; the slow movement owes perhaps something to Beethoven. I have noticed so much in this work that makes me think of Elgar. Yet again, any reference is only of passing interest. The fact is that Hamerik has created a lovely work that would be at home in any concert programme. It is not a work that pushes the musical boundaries. In many ways it is a retrospective of the nineteenth century. However, that is all to the good. Innovation does not always equal fine music. Whereas this work is well constructed, well scored and a pleasure to listen to. I look forward to hearing the rest of this composer’s symphonic works.

The quality of the sound seems a little hard edged to my ear. In the Quintetto there tends to be a buzzing sound from the lower range of the cello. Sometimes the piano part sounds muddy. I would have liked the individual movements mastered as separate tracks. I found myself having to guess where each was as I was listening in preparation for the review. Let me hasten to add that I do not agree with excerpting movements of any work – but when reviewing I often wish to hear a bit that impressed (or caused me problems) again.

It would have been nice to have the words of the Requiem – not every listener is familiar with the Latin Text of the mass. And again I felt that the first CD with a timing of a mere 47 minutes was a bit tight. But perhaps that is being churlish. In balance this is a fine and adventurous production.

It would be unfair to mention any particular performer. Save to say that all the contributors to this double disc seem to have taken this very attractive music seriously. They have all done an excellent job in selling this relatively unknown (outside Denmark) composer to the rest of the musical world.


John France


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