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
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
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!