Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

John FERNSTRÖM (1897-1961)
Songs of the Sea
Symphony No. 12 (1951)
Rao-Nai-Nai's Songs - Chinese Rhapsody (1939)
Miah Persson (sop)
Malmö SO/Lan Shui
rec Malmö October 1998
BIS-CD-997 [61.18]
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Fernström has been the object of my curiosity ever since first hearing several of the symphonies in off-air tapes of Scandinavian broadcasts. Big Ben brought out a CD of three of his numerous string quartets - reviewed here last year. They also have a disc of his orchestral music but I have not heard that yet. I appended some introductory comments on the orchestral music as an adjunct to the string quartet review. That experience whetted my appetite for these BIS commercial recordings.

Fernström is hardly a familiar name even in Sweden. A few words of introduction. He was born in China of missionary parents and only came to Sweden (the home of his parents) when he was 16. He earned a crust or two as a professional violinist and as a teacher. He was not a denizen of Stockholm and though his numerous compositions were performed throughout Sweden, outside the metropolis, he never completely escaped a reputation as a provincial.

Each of the two BIS Fernström anthologies has had a symphony as a centrepiece. In the case of CD-903 it was the 36 minute Sixth Symphony. Here it is No. 12 which plays just over the half hour in three movements. This is turbulent, catastrophic, haunted music with a touch of the unsentimentality of Markevich and the onomatopoeic approach of Nystroem in his Tempest prelude and the storm section of Sinfonia del Mare. At other times Fernström's music grunts and scuffs along like a Kurt Weill symphony or relaxes into Coplandesque home-spun.

Of the two 'song' works one refers to song and the other (Songs of the Sea) is a true song cycle setting English texts by Tennyson, Wordsworth, Shelley and Moore. Miah Persson is vibrantly large of voice - strong rather than operatically crushing. The setting and orchestral web within which they nestle are florid, dramatic, much decorated with melisma. There is at least one section of vocalise prompting recall of Vaughan Williams' late Three Vocalises for soprano and clarinet. Otherwise I occasionally thought of Britten's folk song settings for voice and orchestra. These songs are extremely attractive and are yet more approachable than Nystroem's similarly titled cycle.

The song-based work is a Chinese Rhapsody. It is a skilled and entertaining portrait of his childhood years in China. He pays a more knowing and respectful tribute than Ketèlbey but this is still flighty light music of the type that the BBC Radio 3 used to slot into Matinée Musicale with the BBC Concert Orchestra and Ashley Lawrence. Xylophone chatter and piano flurries decorate this approachable piece. Now let's hear Fernström's 1937 Scania Rhapsody and the suite Ni-Si Peng. The Third Symphony Exotica is touched with the same wand. Sounds like another perfect BIS coupling.

Forced to choose between this disc and the other Fernström BIS I would certainly go for this one. Enjoy.

Rob Barnett

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