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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) 1896; 1934
Nörrköping Symphony Orchestra/Michail Jurowski
Recorded May 31st - June 4th 1999 De Greer Hall, Nörrköping
CPO 999 669-2 [65.55]
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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 1942.

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 United Kingdom.

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 an anti-climax.

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'.

John France

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