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Ouverturer Å Kongl. Theatern
Jacopo Foroni (1825-1858) Overture No.3 in A major (c.1850) [Rec. August 1995
Franz Berwald (1796-1868) ‘The Dressmaker’ (1845) [Rec. August 1995] & ‘I enter a Monastery’ (1842) [Rec. November 1985]
Ludwig Norman (1831-1885) Festive Overture (1882) [[Rec. June 1985]
Andreas Randel (1806-1864) ‘The People from Vårmland.’ (1846) [Rec. June 1985]
August SÖderman (1832-1876) ‘The Devil’s First Tentative Efforts.’ (1856) [Rec. November 1985]
Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-1792) ‘Proserpine’ (1780) [Rec. November 1985]
St Petersburg Hermitage Orchestra
Conductor: - Mats Liljefors [Berwald’s Dressmaker and Foroni]
Kungl, Hovkapellet
Conductor: - Stig Westerburg
STERLING CDS-1009-2 [61.10]

Sterling CDs have done an excellent job in producing this recording of less than popular overtures by Swedish Composers. I always hesitate to use the words ‘less than popular’ because it can often have negative connotations. So let me state at the outset that these are all fine and well-crafted works that deserve to be better known. The vagaries of time and the pressure of a multitude of other works in a similar vein which has pushed these to the back of the queue – at least as far as the British musical public is concerned.

This CD presents us with seven overtures by six composers; the great Franz Berwald has two numbers.

First of all let us look at the nature of 'Overture'. The formal definition is a "musical composition, usually an orchestral introduction to a musical work, often dramatic." The cynic would say that the overture was simply an opportunity to allow the late-comers to get seated and the general hubbub to die down. But latterly 'overtures' came to be written in their own right. These were usually called 'concert-overtures'. Later composers developed this form into things like 'Fantasy Overtures' and such like. This CD has representatives from both opera and stage works and the concert hall.

The composers on this disc all belonged at some stage in their career to the Royal Opera Orchestra, either as conductors or as musicians. The original Opera House in Stockholm was opened on the 30th September 1782. It was used not only for operas but also other musical events and concerts were regularly staged here. The orchestra was at that time the only professional band in the country.

There is, I think a slight ‘typo’ in the programme notes to this CD. I cannot believe that the Royal Opera Orchestra is a 470-year-old institution! That takes us back to 1531; the first opera was Peri’s Dafne performed in Firenze in 1597.

However, I am nit-picking; the sleeve notes are extremely helpful and quite fulsome. I wish all CD companies were so conscientious with their scholarship.

It is not possible to do justice to seven completely different works in one short review. What I intend to do is pick three or four to consider in a little detail and to make a few notes on the others.

Franz Berwald is perhaps the best-known composer on this CD. His music is gradually becoming known in the United Kingdom, perhaps through the excellent recordings of much of his music by Naxos Records.

Berwald was born into a family of gifted musicians on 23rd July 1796. Soon he was studying the violin with his father and composition with the composer, singer and teacher J.B.E.DuPay. Like many intellectuals of his day he travelled in Europe. He lived in Berlin, Vienna and Paris. There was an unfortunate period in his life when he was unable to make ends meet from his playing and composing. During this time he managed a glassworks! After some eight years in industry he returned to teaching at the Stockholm Academy and latterly became professor of composition at the Stockholm Conservatoire. Let it be added that there is nothing 'academic' about his music.

To me, Berwald is one of the greatest of the ‘unknown’ composers. His music is way up there with the ‘greats.’ It is just that we seldom have the opportunity to listen to it. He is considered by all historians to be the founder of Swedish Romantic Music and that country’s first great symphonist – he has five fine examples to his credit (plus one that has been lost). However Berwald had somewhat less success at opera. It appears that he was singularly unsuccessful in finding good libretti.

His first overture given here was from the opera ‘The Dressmaker’. This was an unmitigated disaster and was performed just once. Many opera-goers declared that it was an ideal remedy for insomnia! However the overture was fêted. It was seen to be lively and elegant. This is a judgement with which we can well agree. There is some fine writing in this piece: some good tunes and variety of material that makes for a fine ‘concert’ overture. Even though I do not advocate a revival of the opera an occasional airing of this piece would be welcomed.

Berwald's other overture on this CD was from an opera with the uninspiring title of ‘I enter an Monastery.’ Although it probably fitted in with certain sentimental thoughts of the Romantic era (vide Massenet’s Thais) it was not a rip-roaring success. The auditorium was half-empty, even though the lead role was being sung by the young Jenny Lind.

There is a lovely quote in the sleeve notes that bears quoting in full – it concerns the working practice of Franz and was written by his wife. "My husband took fourteen days to compose it, eight months of manoeuvring to get it performed and five months to make them learn it." At least the music of the overture is well worth listening to. There are the usual Berwald fingerprints - fine melodies, catchy phrases, good orchestration and interesting forward-looking harmonies. A little gem if you forget the title!

The Overture No.3 in A major by Jacopo Foroni belies its austere title. It is possibly one of the very best pieces on this CD - at least from the sense of sheer enjoyment. It has a sort of 'Mendelssohnian' freshness to it. Use is made of an art song by a Bohemian composer and a Polka that has its roots in the 'folk' tradition. The whole work is an example of craftsmanship coupled with fine musical inventiveness. A joy to listen to! And the composer himself was quite a character; not only did he introduce Beethoven into Milan, he was busy fighting the Austrians on the barricades.

The Festival Overture by Ludwig Norman was composed in 1882 to celebrate the 100th Jubilee of the Royal Opera Orchestra. The work is supposed to have been inspired by the recently performed Brahms Academic Festival Overture. The work uses two main themes – one being variations on the Swedish National Anthem and the other an aria from the opera Gustaf Wasa. This was regarded at the time by most critics as having been the most successful opera in the Swedish repertoire. It is quite a four-square piece, but in spite of its ‘academic’ nature is quite enjoyable.

Andreas Randel was leader and assistant conductor of the orchestra for well over half a century. The ‘People from Varmland' was a kind of folk-opera with the composer providing some original music and also some arrangements of ‘local’ music. It was extremely successful, running to some 839 performances! The overture is really a stand-alone piece that refers to much of the opera’s music. It is an attractive work that shows the skill of this underrated composer. It is well scored with lovely moody music for horns.

One of my favourite works on this CD is the overture by Joseph Martin Kraus, ‘Proserpine.’ Unfortunately for this poor composer, he was never to witness a full performance of his operas. Kraus was born in 1756 and died in Stockholm in 1792. He is regarded as being the finest composer of his generation. He had considerable experience in Germany; he met Haydn there who regarded him on a level with Mozart, Salieri and Gluck. Fulsome praise indeed! Strangely Kraus belonged to the same Masonic Lodge as Mozart. It is quite difficult to classify his music. He had a great admiration for Gluck and this certainly shows in the Proserpine Overture. However much of his writing is quite forward looking; we hear intimations of Beethoven and Schubert. The structures are perhaps more complex than was typical of the period. This present work is more a prelude than an overture – it leads directly into the opening chorus. However, it stands well in its own right and is a fine example of this composer’s craftsmanship.

The last work I want to consider in a bit of detail is the overture to the operetta by August Söderman, ‘The Devil’s First Tentative Efforts'.

Söderman was born in Stockholm in 1832. Like so many Swedish composers his father was also a composer and musician of note. Söderman studied at the Swedish Royal Academy; he majored in both piano and harmony. Not content with this achievement he taught himself to play the fiddle and also the oboe. According to Grove his main musical achievement was the composition of theatre and stage music. After a spell in Leipzig he wrote a number of songs and ballads. He also composed some instrumental works and orchestral pieces, however they are regarded by critics as being somewhat uneven in quality.

The story of the operetta has all the hallmarks of works of this period. A young Venetian merchant has sold his soul to the Devil. However, all ends well when the heroine declares her undying love for the poor wretch. As in all good fairy tales love triumphs. The devil relinquishes his control when faced with this bountiful love and also a picture of the Blessed Virgin.

The music itself is charming. Opening with a somewhat ‘churchlike’ theme that sounds as if it ought to played on the organ, the piece soon develops into a string melody that has hints of the romance to come. Then there is typical operetta music. Various fragments of arias and choruses are flung to and fro. There are some interesting orchestral effects that are perhaps ahead of their time. A gorgeous theme on horns appears, with scurrying comments from the woodwind. The ‘organ’ music is presented again, but is soon pushed aside. The slow horn idea returns and the work leads to its close with some skilful combining of tunes already heard.

This is a well-produced CD, both from the presentational point of view and from the sound quality. The musicianship is excellent. One feels that the two orchestras are really taking this music seriously. No one will argue that what is presented here are major works or masterpieces. The seven works illuminate the achievement of each composer. Once again we discover that there is much music that deserves to be heard but never is. Each of these overtures is an excellent example of a somewhat ephemeral music style. It is doubtful if any of the operas represented here will be revived, except perhaps on an occasional basis – although who knows what plans the Royal Opera in Sweden may have.

It is an excellent collection of CDs that Sterling has produced in their ‘Swedish Romantic’ series. This opens up a whole range of fine works that may otherwise have lain in obscurity for more than 150 years. For Swedish musical society it is an opening up of the treasure chests of the past – a re-discovery of some fine music. This CD is a good example of some of the jewels found in this trove. Keep it up Sterling!

John France


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