> Eller, Nielsen, Sibelius, Rangstrom IMCD 021 [JF]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Music around the Baltic Sea Vol 1
Heino Eller (1887-1970) Five Pieces for String Orchestra
Carl Nielsen(1865-1931) Little Suite Op. 1
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) Suite Champêtre
Ture Rangstöm (1884-1947) Divertimento Elegiaco
Camerata Roman - Jan Stigmer, leader
Recorded at Påskallavik Church on January 1993
INTIM MUSIK IMCD 021 [54.51]


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The first volume of ‘Music Around the Baltic Sea’ is an interesting mixture of relatively little known Scandinavian music. The best known piece is probably Carl Nielsen’s Little Suite Op.1 and the Suite Champêtre by Sibelius is possibly one of the master’s lesser-played works.

The first work is the Five Pieces for Strings by Heino Eller. To most British and American listeners this composer is probably an unknown quantity. So a few words on his life and work may give some help in allowing people to situate this excellent piece for string orchestra. The fact that a composer is unknown is no excuse to ignore a minor masterpiece.

Heino Eller was born in Tartu, Estonia on 7th March 1887. He had a fairly typical musical education – studying locally both theory and violin. He played with a number orchestras and also gave solo recitals. He studied the violin at St Petersburg Conservatory and then digressed into the field of law for three years. Further study at Petrograd Conservatory gave him qualification in composition.

Much of his life was spent teaching at the Tartu Higher School for Music. Names associated with this foundation include Eduard Tubin and Olav Roots. In 1940 he was awarded the position as Chair of Composition at Tallinn Conservatory where perhaps his most famous student turned out to be Arvo Pärt.

The compositions of Eller include much for the orchestra – both symphonic poems and symphonies of which he wrote three. He composed a fair amount of chamber music, including at least five string quartets and over a hundred pieces for piano solo.

His music is hard to define. Based on the present piece there is nothing difficult about his language. Someone has written that the keywords for his music is ‘northern’ and ‘fresh.’ He never abandoned tonality; but introduced various diverse elements into his style, including impressionism and Estonian folk music. He held onto basically classical forms for many of his works. There is certainly evidence for consummate craftsmanship and fine orchestral technique.

The Five Pieces for Orchestra make a fine introduction to this composer’s music. There are considerable echoes of the music of Edward Grieg here, especially the Holberg Suite. The music was originally composed for pianoforte and was given in this arrangement by the composer in 1953.

The romance is full of melancholy – one is not sure whether it is dealing with folk traditions or the composer’s reflections on personal events. It is a fine piece that well deserves to become well known. The remainder of the movements are attractive if not particularly profound. The fourth piece, the Lullaby is quite beguiling with its almost Elgarian charm. The Love Song perhaps lacks the intensity we may have expected, however it is quite seductive in its excellent balance of string tone. And to be fair right at the end the passion does actually come through. It feels as if it may be a personal tone picture – who knows? Lovely music that ought be played more.

[ See also Eller: Violin Concerto and symphonic poems, piano music, violin music]

Camerata Roman play the very first of Carl Nielsen’s works to be given an opus number – the Little Suite Op. 1. The only other works generally listed preceding this piece are a string quartet in G minor and a string quintet in G major – although there were many other ‘student’ works designed for various chamber ensembles. The Little Suite was composed in 1888 when the composer was twenty-three years old and is certainly a very accomplished work that reveals how the skill derived from writing chamber music had passed into his work for string orchestra. The suite has always been successful and popular with Nielsen enthusiasts. It shows a certain individuality that was to eventually develop into one of the great symphonic voices of the 20th century.

The first movement is quite a dark little prelude. There are only glimpses of light here – yet it is a sustained and well thought out opening movement. The key to the work is however the intermezzo, which is a clever, graceful waltz with flashes of humour. We are conscious of the composer’s craftsmanship in every bar of this movement. The finale is thoroughly enjoyable. There are references to the first movement – but soon the mood changes and the music becomes broad and expansive like northern skies.

Possibly the best introduction there is to the music of Nielsen; the fact that it is an early work has nothing to do with the case. It is played here with skill, wit and attention to detail.

We do not need to give any background history of the life and works of Jean Sibelius.

The Suite Champêtre was composed between the Fifth and Six Symphonies in 1921. It was part of a series of largely indifferent works written at this time. The others were the Three Pieces Op.96, the Suite Mignonne Op.98 and the Suite Caractéristique Op.100. It is not really that the music is bad, it is just that is seems to be light years away from the symphonic masterpieces either side of it. The first movement reminds me of a Tchaikovskian ballet score in its rhythm and colourings. However it is totally average if not banal music. The Mélodie élégiaque is marginally better, with some attempt at giving it a ‘northern’ colouring. However, it lacks a sense of purpose. The last movement is the Dance and that is hardly a piece of music to excite bodily movement. The whole suite is an example of how it is possible for a great composer to give totally indifferent music to the world. Strangely the sleeve notes refer to these three movements as ‘small elegant masterpieces.’ Yet it is fair to say that the Sibelius catalogue contains much that would be best left to the experts and buffs. The best I can say about this piece is that it deserves the occasional airing it probably does not get. It is well played by Camerata Roman.

The Divertimento Elegiaco by Ture Rangström is a different matter altogether. Here is a work that is deserving of our full attention. The piece was composed over the period of a few days in August 1918. And perhaps some of the haunting qualities of the music derive from thoughts of the last months of the First World War. However there is actually a literary programme behind the divertimento. It was through a study of the German romantic novelist and composer E.T.A Hoffmann that gave this music its shape. There are four movements to this work all of which have unusual titles – Preludio visionario, Scherzo leggiero, Canzonetta malinconica and Giga Fantastic. The old suite titles perhaps, modified by a romantic or perhaps even post romantic adjective?

This music is certainly dark hued; there is nothing ‘light’ about it. Even the Scherzo is anything but a playful joke! The heart of the piece is the ‘painfully beautiful’ Canzonetta. This is truly fine music.

This is a great CD. It should be popular with all those who love string music. There is definitely a ‘Baltic’ flavour about much of this music. With the exception of the Suite Champêtre by Sibelius every work is a minor masterpiece. Camerata Roman rise to the task of expressing this sometimes-difficult music in a way that does justice to the composers.

The CD sleeve has an attractive watercolour of a sailing boat on the Baltic. The programme notes are totally adequate and the sound quality is excellent throughout. I am looking forward to reviewing Volume Two of this delicious issue.

John France


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