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Franz BERWALD (1796-1868)
Overtures, Concertos and Symphonies

Sinfonie Singulière in C (1845) [29:56]
Sinfonie Sérieuse in G minor (1842, rev. 1844) [27:30]
Play of the Elves (1841) [8:25]
Estrella de Soria - Tragic Overture (1841) [7:54]
Reminiscences from the Norwegian Mountains (1841) [8:53]
Racing (1841) [9:01]
Sinfonie Capricieuse in D (1842) [23:50]
Symphony in E flat (1845) [28:13]
Drottingen av Golconda - overture (The Queen of Golconda) (1841) [7:12]
Piano Concerto in D (1855) [20:35]
Bajadarfesten (Festival of the Bayaderes) (1842) [11:37]
Violin Concerto in C sharp minor op. 2 (1821) [21:10]
Allvarliga och muntra infall (Serious and Merry Whims) (1841) [8:13]
Marian Migdal (piano)
Arve Tellefsen (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Ulf Björlin
rec. 8, 10-12 January, 6-8, 10 September 1976, Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London. ADD
EMI CLASSICS TRIPLE 50999 5 00920 2 4 [3 CDs: 66:05 + 78:04 + 69:07]


The Swedish composer Franz Berwald came from a musical family; his father, taught him the violin from an early age. He soon appeared in concerts and started working in the Royal Chapel in 1812,  playing the violin in the court orchestra and the opera, and embarking on his first compositions. His Violin Concerto was first performed by his brother August in 1821, but was not a success. Berwald received a scholarship from the Swedish King, enabling him to study in Berlin, but to make ends meet he was forced to start a physiotherapy clinic there which proved to be significantly more successful, so much so that he was forced to stop composing for a time.  Indeed throughout his life Berwald was a businessman first and composer second; on his return to Sweden he later became manager of a sawmill and glassworks!

After his marriage and a move to Vienna he resumed composition in 1841. Over the course of the next few years Berwald wrote the four symphonies heard on these CDs. The Symphony No. 1 in G minor, "Sérieuse", was the only one of his symphonies he heard during his lifetime. Indeed it was not until many years after his death, with performances of the remaining symphonies, that Berwald’s originality as a composer began to be appreciated. Nevertheless his works rarely appear on concert programmes although there have been several recordings by distinguished advocates such as Sixten Ehrling and Igor Markevitch. The present set, containing the majority of Berwald’s surviving oeuvre, was recorded in London in 1976 and issued the following year. This could not have been familiar music to the RPO back then - indeed it probably still isn’t - and there are signs here and there of unfamiliarity; nevertheless this is an inexpensive way of getting to know Berwald’s music, even if individual performances have been bettered elsewhere. 

The four symphonies are given well-crafted performances, perhaps just lacking the last degree of panache. The Sinfonie singulière, probably Berwald’s best-known work, has an energy and imagination which is not always apparent in his other works or indeed in any music of its time. Robert Layton likens the symphony’s transparent textures to the quality of light found in northern hemispheres, and there is certainly something luminous about Berwald’s scoring. Sometimes, surprisingly, it is the music of Nielsen which is called to mind, even the title of the opening movement, Allegro fuocoso, has a Nielsen-like ring to it. The slow movement is in Berwald’s most lyrical vein, and imaginatively encloses the scherzo within it, a structural device that Berwald was to use on several occasions. The finale brings the symphony to a suitably energetic conclusion. This work was not heard until 1905!

The Sinfonie sérieuse has a fresh, open-air feel to it that at times recalls Dvořák. There is a long-drawn lyricism in the slow movement, while his scherzo brings Mendelssohn’s fairies to mind, while in the Capricieuse Berwald strives to create a sense of structural unity by using recurring themes in the first movement, rather like Schumann in his Fourth Symphony. The work as we know it today is the result of a painstaking reconstruction from Berwald’s sketches, the full score having disappeared shortly after Berwald’s death. The E flat Symphony, contemporary with the Sinfonie singulière, is a slighter work but still pleasant to listen to.

Berwald’s two concertos are given stirring performances by Marian Migdal and Arve Tellefsen. Both are charming but hardly in the bravura tradition of other nineteenth century concertos. The rest of this set is filled out with a number of overtures and symphonic poems which demonstrate different aspects to the Swedish composer’s muse.

Well worth investigating, then, if you are new to Berwald’s world. Sound throughout is well-balanced analogue stereo and there are good introductory notes in the booklet.

Ewan McCormick



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