Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Andreas Hallén (1846-1925)
Ett Juloratorium - A Christmas Oratorio (1904)
Lena Hoel, soprano; Mathias Zachariassen, tenor
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra & Swedish Radio Choir
B.Tommy Andersson, conductor.
Rec live 19 December 1996, Berwald Hall, Stockholm
STERLING CDS-1028-2 [Swedish Romantics] [58.20]
Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

Every so often a reviewer comes across a work that is not in the public domain. Less often it is the composer himself who is largely unknown. This is definitely the case with Andreas Hallén.

When this CD arrived for review I did a quick check in the pages of Grove; there were only a few sentences. Not much help there. A brief glance in one or two textbooks on Swedish music was equally unhelpful. The next time I was on the Internet, I tapped in his name. That was little help. Even the usually excellent Swedish Music Centre scored a blank. I expected very little in English, but to find nothing in Swedish is, after listening to the disc, truly amazing. Yet we have exactly the same problem in many other countries. There is comparatively little information on many lesser-known composers.

So the only help I had in gaining background information was the programme notes provided with the CD; these are excellent. They are a veritable 2500 word essay on the man and his music. So full marks to Sterling CDs and Lennart Hedwall for saving the day.

'A Christmas Oratorio' (1904) deserves to be more widely known. Even the Swedish musical public ought to discover this late romantic work. I concede that, as an hour-long composition, it lacks a sense of unity; it is quite definitely eclectic in its style and presentation. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. If I had to give a one sentence throwaway description it would be 'The Baby Jesus meets the Flying Dutchman'. And my reasons for saying this may become apparent later on.

A few notes on the composer will not come amiss (I quote extensively from the sleeve notes).

Andreas Hallén was born in Gothenburg. There he showed the usual early talent for playing the organ at the cathedral and for being somewhat precocious at school; he founded a musical society at school and conducted a concert in the school hall. Study of music continued under Richter, Hauptmann and Reinecke in Leipzig and then with Rheinberger in Munich. He studied both composition and conducting. He is credited with the first symphonic poem to be composed in Sweden; it was written according to the Lisztian model.

Hallén dedicated much of his career to promoting works in his native city. He was noted for his performances of Mendelssohn's Elijah and Verdi' Requiem. It was at this time (1872-1878) that he began to introduce Wagner to the Swedish audiences. In 1885 Hallén moved to the capital, Stockholm, and there established a choral society. Once again there was a string of works presented to audiences. He gave some Scenes from Parsifal - the first time this music had been heard in Sweden. During his time of presenting opera he conducted Die Walküre.

This very selective view of Hallén's career emphasises one thing. He was seen as being a great Wagnerian. And in his own works this heritage played an immense role. He composed an opera called 'Harald the Viking', the libretto by the author Hans Herrig. It was totally in the Wagnerian mould. Critics in Leipzig, where the work was performed early in its history, were enthusiastic. A quotation from one of them gives the flavour of, not only that opera but also the style of Hallén's other music, "…since Wagner no composer has emerged who has, with more resolute sense of purpose and unwavering logic, from beginning to end, remained faithful to the Wagnerian principle which he made his own." It had of course the full panoply of Wagner's style; a 'fully developed leitmotiv technique, powerful Sprechgesang declamation, supple harmonies and an almost symphonic treatment of the orchestra'.

It is these characteristics that we find in the present oratorio. It is written in two parts, each part divided into four separate movements or sections. The work is scored for soprano and tenor soloists with choir, organ and orchestra. The present conductor has arranged the third movement to include the orchestra; it was originally written for organ only.

This score is quite varied and eclectic. The opening choral section is full of massive choral writing, which constantly remands one of Wagner's operatic choruses or Brahms German Requiem. Yet the second movement has a much lighter tone. Use is made of contemporary folk tunes and passages that seem to derive from Lehár rather than Wagner.

A medieval Swedish melody makes an appearance in the third movement in a moment of considerable beauty; the tune is subtly shared between the soloists. This fourth movement comes complete with a chorale and a recitative. There are memories of G. F. Handel in the closing pages of Part One.

Part Two of the oratorio is equally diverse in styles. This diversity is no real problem. It seems to me to be perfectly balanced in all but compositional style labels. The soprano solo writing is perfect - perhaps reminding the listener of the German Requiem once more. The tenor solo with male voice chorus is just what we would expect: a cross between the Meistersinger and the Welsh Valleys. In the last two sections there are definite hints of Messiah! The ending of the work is quite special being written for two choirs, with some massive choral writing. This is really very fine, singable stuff.

So what are we to make of this Christmas Oratorio? It is, as I have mentioned, a somewhat diverse work. There have been accusations that the composer tried to combine two main styles that do not want to combine; Wagner and Swedish Folk Music. And there is certainly some weight to that argument. However, this work is not just a pastiche of the great operatic composer, it is much more than that. Hallén is in fact an extremely competent composer, who is well able to write for voice. He has an especial ability to compose choral music. The last chorus shows him at his most triumphant. There are echoes of many composers to be found in the pages of this work. However, that is no bad thing. Few composers are entirely free from external influences. Just look at Bach, for example.

Hallén has produced what amounts to eight tableaux. Some are more convincing than others. Yet the whole does hang together. A solid hour of Wagnerian power would in fact overpower.

The CD is well produced and the sound is totally acceptable, bearing in mind that it is a live recording. I am impressed with the programme notes; especially so in this instance when there is no other place to find out background information. The front cover is a little sentimental in its tone; it belies the music contained in the CD. Perhaps Botticelli may have saved the artistic day?

I recommend that all folk who enjoy choral music try out this piece. It is, as we say in the North Country, 'a right good sing'. I played this work to a few friends, who are big Wagnerians. They thoroughly enjoyed it.

If this work were a long lost, but recently discovered, essay by Wagner, it would soon become well known. It would certainly form part of his canon. As it is, it is by a composer little-known - at least on these shores.

I would like to hear more music by Hallén, especially some of his orchestral music. It seems to me that it is liable to be full of hidden delights.

John France.

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board.  Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.This is the only part of MusicWeb for which you will have to register.

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: