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JOHN (Axel) FERNSTRÖM (1897-1961) Four String Quartets String Quartet No. 4 (1945) String Quartet No. 6 (1946) String Quartet No. 7 (1952) String Quartet No. 8 (1952)    Lysell Quartet   rec 1998-1999 Swedish Radio, Studio 2 DAPHNE 1009 [67.36]

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Fernström, the composer/conductor, was born in I-Chang, Hupei, China, the son of a Swedish missionary. He studied at Malmö Conservatory, then in Copenhagen with Peder Gram. In 1916 he was appointed first violin with the orchestra now known as the Helsingborg SO. He was appointed as Conductor/Orchestra Manager from 1932. Between 1939 and 1943 he led the Malmö Radio SO moving to Lund in 1943, where, in 1948, he became head of the municipal music school. For many years he was closely associated with the Nordic Youth Orchestra. He has 12 symphonies to his name, three operas, various concertos, choral and oratorio works.

There are eight string quartets and after this sampling we can only hope that the present CD is Volume 1 of a pair - not that there is any sign of that on the disc.

The Fourth Quartet is devastatingly attractive. Its web-weave suggests a synthesis of Dvorák (American Quartet), early Tippett and Mendelssohn's Octet with just that edge of unfamiliarity that marks it out as special. This is very mobile passionate music. Classic Fm material if ever I heard any! And this is not to demean the music which is consistently suave without being characterless.

The Sixth Quartet is a much more challenging listen: buzzingly Bartókian, busy, sorrowingly ruminative, hoarse-toned, sprinting, a-gypsying in true Hungarian style in the finale. The Seventh Quartet saws and sways, seemingly imitative of the movement of insects over a pool in the unremitting and threatening heat of a summer's day, morose in the Andante, brilliant and brusquely hoarse in the Scherzo, gruffly mercurial in the finale.

Fernström's eight and last quartet declares itself as 'in the Dorian mode'. It has a devotional feeling in both the first and third movements rather similar to Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia. There is a hint of Josef Suk's Meditation on a Theme of St Wenceslas in the Andante as well as a recognisably Scandinavian romantic string style, best recognised in the Atterburg Suite No. 3. In the Allegro we come full circle to the somewhat romantic approach which smiles benignly over the pages of the Fourth Quartet. The final allegro moderato with its pizzicato bounce, aspirant spiced high string line and stream of melody (part Dvorák, part Elgar) is winningly attractive music.

This is music not to be passed over. Start with the fourth and then the eighth.

A lovely disc the making of which was financially supported by the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs.


Rob Barnett


The Second Symphony (radio tape: Helsingborg SO/Claude Genetay), after an overcast introduction, hits a mysterious Sibelian note, building tension (like an escapee from En Saga) then introducing a hymn-like subject which is shaken and transformed largely through the medium of the strings. A thematic fragment, much repeated, sounds rather like a splinter of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony - last movement. The middle movement touchingly combines an expressionist serenade for strings - shades (or pre-echoes) of Tod und Verklärung with a fine slowly moving theme of sentimental gravity. After a sombre introduction a joyous and light-spirited conclusion.

The Sixth Symphony (radio source: Göteborg SO/Norman Del Mar) is (in its first movement) turbulent, rent with thunder and lit by lightning: brass erupt, side-drum clatters. This is, perhaps, as one would expect from a 1930s symphony, which, if cliché is to hold good, should be ominous and far from peaceful. The music seems to speak of Nielsen (4 and 5) and a (very) little of Schumann. The second movement is still troubled though quieter in the manner of the last movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique with a touch of the village devotional. It is also a touch long-winded. The third movement is quick with flickering music which struck me as splendidly in keeping with George Lloyd's Sixth Symphony and the unjustly-derided Prokofiev Seventh Symphony. After the light relief comes the finale: the melodrama of the first movement returns with black brass recapturing the deep gloom of the brass fanfares from Finlandia. The perky-jerky Nielsen/Beethoven 7 spirit of the third movement reasserts itself. In a blast and a convulsive rush the symphony ends in an unashamed tribute to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. While the final message is quite confident a rather ramshackle impression is given overall.

The Ninth Symphony I have heard on a radio tape of a broadcast by Hans-Peter Frank conducting the Malmö SO. Without sounding like Beethoven this is Beethovenian in spirit - at least in the character of the odd-numbered symphonies, with some glassily Schubertian string serenade contributions. This is quite a classical sounding symphony with an accelerating third movement mixing Beethoven's Seventh and Mahler alongside the highest notes of the xylophone. Ebullient dance and a rustic atmosphere recalling Richard Rodney Bennett's music for Far From the Madding Crowd also appear in this movement. The effect is somewhat like the Beethovenian works of Robert Simpson (Symphony No. 4 and String Quartets 4-6).

Tapes of symphonies 5 and 12 are in circulation but I have not heard them. If anyone can report on them (and preferably provide stud copies) or on other examples of Fernström's music I should be pleased to hear from them.


It might be useful to list a selection of the Fernström works in the hope that this may stir some interest in recordings:-


Achnaton (1931)

Isissytrarnas bröllop (1942)

Livet en Dröm (1946)


No. 1 (1920)

No. 2 (1924)

No. 3 Exotica (1928)

No. 4 (1930)

No. 5 (1932)

No. 6 (1938)

No. 7 Sinfonietta (1941)

No. 8 Amore Studiorum (1942)

No. 9 Sinfonia Breve (1943)

No. 10 Sinfonia Discrète (1944)

No. 11 Utan Mask (1945)

No. 12 (1951)

String Quartets

No. 1 (1920)

No. 2 (1925)

No. 3 (1931)

No. 4 (1942)

No. 5 (1945)

No. 6 (1947)

No. 7 (1950)

No. 8 (1952)


2 violin concertos

Clarinet Concerto

Viola Concerto

Soli, chorus and orchestra

Mass (1931)

Stabat Mater (1936)

Den mödosamma vä gen (1947)


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Rob Barnett

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