recordings may be old – the Holberg Suite dates back thirty-six
years – but they come from a golden period in the illustrious
history of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, in collaboration
with Sir Neville Marriner, who had formed the orchestra in 1959.
The playing is out of the very top drawer, and the recorded
sound is representative of Decca’s best in the 1970s – more
than acceptable even by the highest current standards.
is something very special about Scandinavian string music, though
it is very difficult to say exactly what it is. It’s something
to do, I’m sure, with the clean, brilliant sound of strings,
uncompromised by the heavier tones of brass and woodwind. Cool,
maybe, yet full of beauty and passion when required.
programme of this disc is most elegantly put together, contrasting
the Neo-Classical busy-ness of the Grieg Holberg Suite with
the more angular Dag Wirén Serenade from the 1930s, then finishing
with Sibelius’ Rakastava, one of his less familiar pieces, yet
an undoubted miniature masterpiece. On earlier tracks, we have
Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies op.34, Hjerterar - The Wounded
Heart - and Våren - The Last Spring - and I have never heard
the latter sound so heart-breakingly beautiful as in this rapt
performance. Sibelius’ famous Valse Triste which follows is
equally fine, full of dark intensity. The pianissimo of the
strings here is a special joy, as is the lovely woodwind playing
in the central episode - the only time these instruments are
heard on the disc.
9-11 bring the Nielsen Little Suite, his op.1, yet an impressively
assured and striking piece. I hadn’t heard this for years,
and had forgotten just how good it is. You’d have difficulty
in identifying the composer if you knew only Nielsen’s mature
works, yet each movement is highly characterised, showing the
influence of Dvořák and Grieg; compare the charming central
Intermezzo, for example, with Grieg’s ‘Anitra’s Dance’ from
Peer Gynt. The backward glance at the first movement’s mournful
main theme at the beginning of the Finale is a ‘cyclic’ touch
inherited from Dvořák, which then leads, via some lovely
key-changes, to the exuberant concluding Allegro.
Serenade op.11 by the Swedish composer Dag Wirén will ever retain
a place in the affections of, shall we say, listeners ‘of a
certain age’ (knocking on a bit), because of the use of its
march as the theme music to the ‘Monitor’ programmes about the
arts in the 1950s and 1960s, masterminded by the great Huw Weldon.
But it is an excellent piece throughout, thoroughly representative
of a composer who is highly regarded in Scandinavia yet barely known in this country. It is
beautifully written for the strings, and has much subtle interplay
of motifs between the four movements. And of course that final
Marcia is incredibly catchy – I defy you not to be whistling
or humming the tune all day after hearing it a couple of times.
best word for Sibelius’s suite Rakastava op.14 is haunting.
The music originated as settings of folk-poetry for male voice
choir, then the composer made this version for strings and light
percussion – the best-known – in 1911, and it has three exquisite
and highly typical movements. The first, ‘The lover’, is passionate
yet hesitant, while the second, ‘The path of the lover’, has
that suppressed excitement that we find again in the finale
to the 5th Symphony. The third, ‘Good night, my beloved,
farewell’, harks wistfully back to the first movement, and opens
out into an elegiac coda of great beauty. As elsewhere, the
playing of the Academy strings is quite superb – not only in
ensemble, but where solos are taken, everything is of the very
highest musicianship and sensitivity.
its way, this is a very special recording, impossible to recommend
too strongly. Snap it up and enjoy!