Let me put my cards
on the table. This CD contains some
of the greatest, the loveliest and the
most moving music I have ever heard.
And all this from a composer who is
hardly a household name outside his
native Sweden. In fact, I doubt many
folk will have ever heard of him, never
mind be acquainted with his music.
Now I am fortunate
and have listened to a number of his
pieces. I was aware of the three works
on this disc but never had the opportunity
of hearing them. The problem is further
exacerbated by availability: a brief
look at the Arkiv catalogue reveals
only one work by Nystroem - Partita
for Flute, Strings and Harp. I know
there is another one of his songs on
the Musica Sveciae label.
So why my enthusiasm
for this unknown or little known Swedish
composer? Even a brief perusal of the
Songs of the Sea will reveal
a work that is every bit as fine as
Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder or
Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs.
And for me that is saying a lot. Those
Wagner offerings are the only pieces
by that composer that really move me
and that is not saying I do not rate,
like or appreciate him!
These songs, third
‘marine’ work on this CD, are extremely
lyrical. Chronologically they came between
Nystroem’s heavier seascapes. Not that
the Songs of the Sea are not
passionate – they are. This music is
full of the light and colour and feel
of the Scandinavian coastal land and
seascapes. This is not really impressionism
as such – just wonderful settings of
words to a fine vocal line. This is
coupled with superb orchestration that
evokes the mood of the words. I have
noted below that the composer was also
an artist – and perhaps this accounts
for much of the texture and hues. Every
note of this beautiful set of five songs
tells; nothing is out of place.
A brief scan of the
poems shows that he chose ideal texts
for his sea evocation. The opening number
has the evocative title – ‘Out in
the Skerries.’ This word has been
alluded to in Hugo Alfvén’s catalogue
as a title of a symphony and a tone
poem. I looked up what a ‘skerry’ means.
In English it is ‘A small rocky reef
For a flavour of the
first song let me just quote the second
verse of this poem:-
Then we shall sail out there
To the outermost islands
Bathed in light, shimmering like a
Carried on the foam of the surf.
The second poem is
a ‘Nocturne’ that describes the
‘hush of dream and slumber deep/in silent
summer’s night.’ The past is reviewed
in the ‘Song of the Sea’ – words
about ‘ships (that) reach harbour and
ships (that) are wrecked. This perhaps
nudges towards Whitman in its sentiment.
The fourth poem reflects on someone
who has escaped to live by the sea,
but realises that perhaps this is not
actually their home. And finally the
last song ‘I wait for the Moon’
is a song of comfort. The mezzo-soprano
sings to heart-achingly beautiful music:-
In search of comfort
to the sea I go
I hurry there, when darkness gathers
The moon I wait for friend in dearest
To talk with him of someone who
These songs can be
summed up as ranging from ‘sunlit archipelago
to shaded beaches and from turbulence
to consolation.’ The singing by Charlotte
Hellekant is divine. She has a stunning
voice that deserves to be heard more
widely. Apparently she has already recorded
the Songs by the Sea in its voice
and piano version on Daphne Records
A brief résumé
of Gösta Nystroem’s career may
not be out of place here. I lean heavily
on the Swedish Music Centre’s biography.
The basic facts are
that he was born in Silvberg, Dalarna
on 13th October 1890. He
studied music at the Stockholm Conservatory
just before the First World War. This
was followed with further tuition from
Andreas Hallén, a notable Swedish
composer. His education was rounded
off in Copenhagen with lessons from
d'Indy, amongst others. It was at this
time that he started to study painting
After thirteen years
in Paris he returned to Sweden where
he lived until his death at Varberg
on 9th August 1966. Aside
from composing he was a music critic
for a major newspaper in Gothenburg
and spent time as Director of the Gothenburg
Art Association. If all this is not
enough he was an accomplished pianist
and had a fine baritone voice to boot.
I also understand that he was poet.
The composer wrote
an autobiography called ‘All I remember
is pleasure and Light’. However it is
fair to say that his music does not
necessarily mirror this. It is known
that Nystroem had an extremely serious
side that bordered on the melancholy.
And this was manifested in many of his
compositions. He was not only impressed
by landscapes and seascapes - there
was a deeply spiritual side to his nature.
This revealed itself in sensitive and
sometimes intense melodies which have
a rhythmic vitality that exudes energy
and dynamism. Yet much of his music
is reflective; there are moments of
peace and tranquillity that well balance
the more lively aspects of his craft.
Nystroem was largely
a ‘tonal’ composer but also made use
of a considerable array of compositional
tools. As for reference points to help
the listener decide whether Nystroem
is for them, it is very difficult. I
thought about Gustav Holst when I was
listening to some of this music. Perhaps
Debussy is the obvious comparison for
the women's voices in The Tempest.
Some critics have heard the influences
of Hindemith, Stravinsky and ‘Les Six.’
Something must have rubbed off on the
Paris sojourn, after all. And what about
Arnold Bax – are there not hints of
Tintagel amongst the sea-spray
of The Tempest? But it seems
to me that we have to take Nystroem
as he is. He is actually unique; he
does not slavishly follow any particular
school. Perhaps, as we hear more of
his music (hopefully) it will be possible
to make an educated stylistic judgement
on his works.
The Prelude to the
Tempest was composed in 1934. It
was part of a suite of projected incidental
music for the play. Three Songs
were later excerpted from the score
and have become well known in Sweden
as a separate entity.
A great chord opens
the Prelude and we are plunged
headlong into the storm. Of course The
Tempest has generated a lot of music
– I am thinking of Tchaikovsky and more
appropriately William Alwyn. This present
storm rages and to highlight the violence
of nature Nystroem makes considerable
and effective use of brass. Suddenly
the women’s voices appear as if from
nowhere – and this is where Debussy
is recalled. These are obviously ‘sirens’
trying to distract the sailors’ attention.
All the aspects of a storm are vividly
portrayed - the intensity and even the
false easing off. A lovely tune tries
and fails to establish itself before
being whipped away into the darkness.
The storm reasserts itself and soon
we are heading towards the end of the
piece. Of course Nystroem shuts down
the music and there is a tenuous calm
in the closing pages. However I really
do doubt if we ever get a glimpse of
the Prospero’s Magic Island.
Apparently this Prelude
harks back to an earlier tone poem called
The Arctic Ocean (what I would
give to hear this work!) and this in
turn was based on discarded sketches
for a nineteen-twenties ballet project.
The Third Symphony
or the Sinfonia del Mare is perhaps
Gösta Nystroem’s greatest work.
It was completed in December 1948 at
the town of Marstrand where much of
the inspiration for The Tempest
had been derived. However the Symphony
owes less to the North Sea and the Baltic
than it does to the beautiful waters
around the Isle of Capri.
The work lasts some
forty minutes and is written in four
contrasting movements. Yet the unity
is quite definitely the ‘sea itself.’
Every note of this work exudes the atmosphere
of the mighty ocean, the Kingdom of
Neptune. From the fugal beginnings of
the storm in the ‘scherzo’ to the quiet,
almost becalmed mood of parts of the
final movement we are in the arms of
this changeable deity. This is a totally
different Sea Symphony to those
of Howard Hanson or Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The latter is very much about the soul
afloat on the heaving bosom of the ocean,
the traveller to countries unknown.
The former just does not seem to match
the promise his earlier Romantic
Symphony in its breadth of thought.
The construction of
this present work is impressive. The
opening drum-roll with its ‘crescendo-diminuendo
arc’ controls the architecture of each
movement and the whole symphony itself.
The opening gambit is recalled in the
closing pages. While formally speaking
this is not truly cyclical, it certainly
is internally consistent and self-referential.
The slow movement contains
a gorgeous meditation for mezzo-soprano
entitled ‘The Only.’ Of course the 'Only'
is in fact the beloved:-
And just as I know
that all living is vain
If far from your true love
You live in loneliness
Thus I know
That these sunny days that now pass
in the grove
With twitt’ring birds and gay butterflies
I shall gladly forsake for one single
Of the wind from the sea.
And what lovely music
Nystroem gives to both singer and orchestra.
It is stunningly beautiful.
The work ends with
an intense ‘allegro’ which is quite
definitely storm-orientated. Yet even
here are moments of repose and reflection.
The storm must always abate.
The work has been well
summed up in an article on the composer
on the Swedish Music Information Centre
website. ‘HGP’ writes that the ‘Sinfonia
del Mare, portrays the heaviness and
refraction of light in the motions of
the waves as symbolising the yearning
of a sensitive human being.’
This is a truly great
work and it surprises me that it is
not in the public domain. I am aware
that this symphony was popular in Sweden.
Apparently all the main Scandinavian
orchestras added it to their repertoire.
It was feted by the reviewers. But somehow
it appears to have slipped through the
nets this side of the North Sea.
In a summing up it
seems to me that Gösta Nystroem
had managed to fuse two disparate tendencies
or trends in music – that of modernism
with that of romanticism. He claimed
to be an incurable romantic – and this
is the general feeling from start to
finish of this great symphony. And it
would be fair to say it is true of this
CD in general.
A few details. The
sound quality is excellent. The playing
of this complex and involved music is
enthusiastic and committed and the soloist
is an absolute dream!
The programme notes
are adequate – although a little bit
more biographical history would have
This CD is a must for
all lovers of ‘sea music’. It takes
its place in my collection next to Bridge’s
The Sea, Britten’s Sea Interludes,
William Alwyn’s Magic Island
and all the music of Arnold Bax that
heaves with the swell of the ocean.
review by Rob Barnett
OTHER NYSTROEM REVIEWS ON MUSICWEB INTERNATIONAL
Mare - Svetlanov
for Strings (two)
Other BIS discs not reviewed on this
espressiva (No.2) (1935-37) and
Sinfonia seria (No.5) (1963)
for strings, flute and percussion Crotchet
Ishavet (La mer arctique),
Poème symphonique (1924-25);
Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, Hommage
à la France (1941); Sinfonia
concertante for Cello and Orchestra
(1944, rev. 1951-52)