Wilhelm PETERSON-BERGER (1867-1942)
Symphony No 4. in A major 'Holmia' (1929)
Törnrossagan, Orchestral Suite (The Story of the Sleeping
Beauty) 1903; 1934
Frösöblomster, Suite No. 1 (The Flowers of Froso)
Recorded May 31st - June 4th 1999 De Greer Hall,
CPO 999 669-2
There is no doubt that the 4th Symphony 'Holmia' by Wilhelm
Peterson-Berger is not one of his best; although there is little scholarly
consensus as to whether this accolade goes to the gorgeous
2nd 'The Journey to the South' or to the
3rd 'Lapland'. Yet it is easy to write off a piece of music
simply because it is not a masterpiece or because it does not move the symphonic
art on by leaps and bounds. To try to understand what Peterson-Berger has
achieved it is necessary to look at the scope of the piece. It is always
assumed that a composer when writing a symphony wishes to produce a profound
work; something that will be regarded as a major contribution to the genre.
However, it may well be the case that what Peterson-Berger wanted to do was
write a work that was essentially 'light' in character. In fact there is
a debate as to whether he actually composed a symphony at all; some critics
argue that what we have are three 'character' pieces making up a suite. It
was around this time that Eric Coates composed his excellent London
Suites. Perhaps the Swedish composer wished to do for Stockholm (the
title refers to Stockholm, by the way) what Coates had done for London.
Peterson-Berger was a great portrayer of landscapes - at least as far as
the programmes of his works went. In many ways this can be an off-putting
feature of his music. Some of these programmes are so specific as to endanger
the progress of the music. I have a marked preference to ignore most of
Peterson-Berger's programmes. I read them, and then forget them. My approach
to his symphonies is to regard them as absolute. If I had to keep his specific
thoughts in my mind whilst listening it could totally spoil the work for
me. Yet music of his symphonic output is too good to lose simply because
the listener does not relate to the chosen verbal images. However, for the
purposes of this current CD I am quite prepared to hold an image of Stockholm
in my mind's eye as I listen; just as I will keep London in my sights when
listening to Vaughan William's essay on that city.
A brief overview of the composer's career will not come amiss - especially
as he is still a relatively unknown quantity outside of Sweden.
The basic facts are quite straightforward. He was born on 27th
February 1867 in the district of Ullånger. After some private musical
education, he studied organ at the Stockholm Conservatory in 1886. Lessons
in composition, counterpoint and piano followed. He put many of these skills
into practice as a teacher at a teacher training college and at Umeå
High School. He taught at the Dresdener Musikschule for a couple of years.
But perhaps he was best known for his long association with the newspaper
Dagens Nyheter. He was their main music critic from 1895 until 1930. He retired
to the island of Frösen and there he died on 3rd December
Wilhelm Peterson-Berger was well able to combine the three sides of his musical
personality - that of the critic, of the teacher and educationalist and that
of the composer. Yet it was as a critic that he gained a tremendous notoriety,
which may actually have caused a deal of harm to his composing career. He
was noted for virulent attacks on composers, compositions and players. These
attacks were met with either amusement or anger. However, this meant that
people who may have been favourable to his compositions, tended to be put
off by his reputation as a cantankerous old man.
His catalogue of works is quite extensive. The five symphonies form the major
part of the orchestral repertoire. However, much of his output was in fact
choral, some works being composed for male voice quartet, a genre which seems
so popular in Scandinavian countries. There is a considerable corpus of chamber
music and piano solo. We are fortunate in having most of the orchestral music
available on CD. However, there appears to be little else available in the
Wilhelm Peterson-Berger had already done some justice to the city of Stockholm
back in 1893 with a symphonic poem called 'May Carnival in Stockholm'.
For his 4th Symphony he tried to be somewhat more ambitious.
He was writing what was essentially a travelogue - a visitor from the 'sticks'
viewing the big capital city. Yet in many ways this is no piece of descriptive
music. In spite of the naivety of the material, it is better to regard it
as an impressionistic essay: the way the visitor felt rather than what he
actually saw. It is quite difficult to piece together the sense-impressions
throughout this work. There are allusions to 'Americanisation', which was
so prevalent at the end of the 'Twenties, not only in Stockholm but also
throughout much of Europe. Some use is made of national music - but this
is definitely not a folk-music symphony. In the first movement we are introduced
to the city itself - a sweeping gesture, an overview. The slow movement that
includes a scherzo-like passage is an attempt to give the idea of the night-life
in the city. We are conscious of church, café and nightclub. The critics
have slated the last movement for its 'populist' form. In the last movement
there are hints of jazz - not overt like Gershwin but quite restrained. It
is, I think, quite naïve of the composer to have ended with a hymn tune
- even if it is Bishop Thomas' 'Freedom Song'.
What are we to make of all this? Well, it makes pleasant listening; nothing
too hard. It is quite definitely 'light' music. However it is exceptionally
well-crafted light music. The orchestral texture is quite varied and, I think,
quite attractive. I applaud CPO for including this work in their catalogue
of the composer's works. We need it for completeness; yet compared to the
2nd Symphony 'Journey to the South' it is a little bit of
Included on this CD is the Törnrössagan - Orchestral Suite
in ten parts from the Fairy Tale 'Lyckan.' This work dates from the year
1903. The programme notes give a synopsis for this rather quaint reworking
of the story of Sleeping Beauty. In 1934, some thirty years after the music
drama was originally composed, Peterson-Berger decided to arrange much of
the music as an orchestral suite in ten sections. Each item has the usual
'Fairy Tale', almost 'Rimsky-Korsakovian' titles e.g. - To the Sleeping Beauty's
Castle; Flight through the Night and The Dawning of the Day. This is a lovely
work. I actually like it better than the 'Holmia' Symphony. It most
certainly deserves the occasional airing.
In 1896 Peterson-Berger had composed what is possibly his best-known work
- the Flowers of Frosa, or Frösöblomster. These were
originally composed for piano solo. There is no doubt that the composer saw
them in the same light as much of Edvard Grieg's piano pieces; miniature
tone poems describing the sights and sound of the Swedish landscape.
Some of these pieces are extremely beautiful and deserve to be well known
in this country. They are ideal candidates for Classic FM. In 1934 the composer
chose to orchestrate five of the 'better' numbers from the original suite.
This was done with consummate skill. The music lives up to their titles;
Summer Song, To the Roses, Congratulation, At Fröso Church and Greeting.
These are five exquisite miniatures that are a joy and a pleasure to listen
to. Although I have known the piano pieces for some time - they are available
on Naxos 8.554343 - this was the first time I had heard the orchestral
transcriptions. These are almost worth the price of the CD in their own right.
The Nörrköping Symphony Orchestra has a fine pedigree. It was founded
in 1912 and has developed into a full-blown professional orchestra. It is
noted for the many fine young players in its ranks. Michail Jurowski has
a fine CV behind him. He has conducted orchestras throughout Europe, including
the Northern German Philharmonic, Berlin Radio Orchestra and the Moscow Radio
Symphony Orchestra. He has experience of conducting Swedish music especially
Ture Rangstrom. Both conductor and orchestra bring enthusiasm to these works
that do not really require the orchestra to perform any kind of fireworks.
They play with a considerable degree of nuance and subtlety.
The CD is beautifully produced. The sound quality is perfect. However the
greatest compliment must be paid to the excellent programme notes. This is
a veritable essay on the composer. Although the main part of the text is
given in all the symphonies so far released, there is extensive additional
information on the present pieces. CPO is to be congratulated on this symphonic
cycle. One has to hope that they will soon bring out the final symphony
-'Solitudo.' Furthermore the 'Italian Suite' and the
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra are ideal candidates for recording.
Perhaps they will be included on the disc with the final symphony? Oh, and
what about the very first piece inspired by the capital of Sweden - the 'May
Carnival in Stockholm'.