There is something old, something new and something
borrowed about this excellent CD from Intim Musik. Let me explain. We
have the totally unknown Ouvertura Bianca-nera (Congress Overture)
by the relatively unknown Hilding Rosenberg, the better known but little
appreciated Rakastava Suite by Jean Sibelius and the largely
unheard Chitra Suite by Wilhelm Stenhammar. There is also the
fairly well known String Quartet by Edvard Grieg except that
it is not well known in this arrangement for string orchestra. So all
in all this is an album of discovery; four Scandinavian works which
are well wrought and in their own ways are minor masterpieces.
There is little written about Hilding Rosenberg in
the standard English language dictionaries of music. Neither is there
a great repertoire of available CDs with which to make an educated judgement
on his achievement. There is of course an excellent article in the New
Grove and a number of references in text books dealing with Scandinavian
Music. A short sketch of his life may help listeners situate his life
Rosenberg was born in 1892 in the town of Bosjokloster.
He did not come from a particularly musical background; his father was
a gardener. Yet this composer made a huge contribution to the sense
of direction of modern music in Sweden. He studied at the Stockholm
Conservatory and later in many of the musical centres of Europe including
Paris, Berlin and Vienna. He became known as a conductor in Sweden both
of orchestral music and of opera. His magnum opus, if not his masterpiece
was an opera based on Thomas Mann’s Joseph. It is reputed to take eight
hours in performance.
Rosenberg utilised many styles and a variety of musical
aesthetics in his music. However it fair to say that much of his music
has a leaning toward Expressionism. Of course this ‘ism’ properly belongs
to painting, especially in Germany prior to the First World War. However
it has been applied to music that was the antithesis of impressionism
– that is to say works which aimed at expressing moods and states of
mind rather than outward and visible things. The great prophet of this
‘school’ was Arnold Schoenberg. Naturally, Rosenberg was not in thrall
to any single style or master. He assimilated the music of Bartók
and Stravinsky as well has harking back to lighter music in the spirit
The present work is an example of Rosenberg at his
best. Perhaps it was written at a time when the canons of modern music
were advancing well beyond the composer. He never really took to serialism
– certainly not the advanced and total serialism of the likes of Boulez.
The Congress Overture was originally called the Ouvertura
Bianca-nera – Black and White Overture. It was composed for the
opening of the International Pen Club Congress in Stockholm in 1946.
The work manages to combine a solemn opening with a much more exuberant
allegro. This is perhaps a good introduction to the music of this little
known composer. He has a massive catalogue that even on the basis of
the few works I have heard by him, deserves to be explored. It contains
some eight symphonies, a violin and a cello concerto, a large number
of chamber works and of course a variety of excursions into opera. Please
do not be put off this attractive overture with any misgivings about
operas lasting for a third of a day! The overture is a fine work.
No biographical information is needed for Sibelius.
However the programme notes quote the composer himself on the Rakastava
Suite –"There is something of the soil about it. Earth and
Finland." This work, at least to my ear, is one of Sibelius’s finest
– certainly for strings if not for his entire opus. Rakastava or
The Lover Suite has a somewhat involved history. Its first incarnation
was in 1893 as a work for male voice chorus. It was written for a competition
at Helsinki University that Sibelius did not win. The following year
the composer wrote a string accompaniment to the words. Four years later
it reappeared as an unaccompanied work for mixed choir. Thirteen years
later the present version was produced. This is the one that is best
known to all but specialists of Sibelius’s music. It was written around
about the time of the Fourth Symphony, so Sibelius was well on
course to being at the height of his powers. There is no doubt that
this is a sophisticated work that shows the craft of the composer at
The work is in three movements. The first is a kind
of daydream or rather a night dream. The music is written in a quite
free and relaxed style. There are quiet interludes that interrupt the
flow of this sensuous music. This is the stuff that a lover’s reverie
is made of – whether in her arms or dreaming of them. The second movement,
entitled ‘The Lover’s Journey’, is based on the music of the original
choral work. It is transformed into a ‘perpetuum mobile’ figure that
has all the lovely charm of the first movement. There is a touch of
the ‘sleigh ride' here. The last movement, ‘Good Night –Farewell’ is
the longest of the three movements and is perhaps the most intense.
It is in three unbalanced sections; the first being a folk-like melody,
the second being a dialogue of farewell and the last is quite dark and
If ever there was a work that disproves any theories
of a cold and distant personality behind the works of Sibelius this
is it. It is one of his loveliest works and is played to fine effect
The Chitra Suite by Wilhelm Stenhammar is an
example of being old, new and borrowed at the same time!
In 1913 this composer was asked to produce incidental
music for Rabindranath Tagore’s verse drama 'Chitra'. He had many years
to come up with a score as it was not due to be performed until 1921.
It is not necessary for this review to give the outline of the story
of the play – save to say it based on traditional Indian love stories.
Like much incidental music it was put aside after the performances had
ended. However Hilding Rosenberg discovered the score in 1959 and created
an orchestral suite out of parts of the music. Rosenberg did not attempt
to mirror the plot in this suite – he simply made use of a number of
good themes and phrases that would have been a pity to have lost. However
there is a kind of progress from relaxation to tension as the work progresses.
The movements reflect this – the first being an Andante Sostenuto and
the finale is an Allegro Appassionata. The programme notes suggest that
there is an affinity with early Schoenberg- perhaps of the Pelléas
and Verklärte Nacht period. I do not know what the original
instrumentation was but this arrangement for string orchestra (with
celesta) is a good addition to the repertoire of that particular medium.
We must be thankful to Rosenberg for rescuing this music.
On a scale of one to ten Edvard Grieg’s String Quartet
is probably not that well known. Certainly to the average listener there
is little beyond the great Piano Concerto and the Peer Gynt Suites.
However there is quite large catalogue of music hidden behind these
seeming evergreens. And much of it remains unexplored. A friend of mine
who has played Grieg’s piano music all his life was amazed to find out
that he had composed a Symphony. The awareness of his chamber music
is hardly great either. There are two ‘catalogued’ string quartets -
one in G minor and an unfinished one in F and there are three violin
sonatas and one for cello. There is also a Fugue for string quartet
dating from 1861and another seemingly withdrawn quartet in D minor from
There has always been a problem with the scale and
scope of the G minor work. Many people have said that in his search
for expansiveness and a big sound he has overstretched the medium of
the quartet. He has perhaps gone beyond the natural intimate quality
of that form. The work has been arranged here by Thomas Liljeholm for
a full sized string orchestra. This is certainly one of the most inspired
arrangements of any work that I have ever heard. I have never been too
sure of the original, but after hearing this work a few times I am convinced
of its almost symphonic qualities.
The work begins with an extremely powerful opening
statement. Musical analysts have argued that the germ of the entire
work is contained in this initial phrase. There is certainly a great
sense of unity and purpose about this work that is obvious with even
a superficial hearing of the work. And that is extremely satisfying.
The first movement is in fact a ‘mosaic’ of melodies,
patterns and harmonies that somehow combine into a unified whole. This
is perhaps the emotional core of the work. The second movement is an
attractive Romanza that has a lively dance like central interlude. This
is Grieg at his most craftsman-like and has a number of very poignant
moments. The third is quite an unexpected intermezzo – nothing too light
and uninvolved here. It is surprisingly powerful and has a lot of mood
swings. The last movement is a sheer joy to listen to. A slow introduction
is followed by music that exhibits all the joys of youth and spring.
Great music indeed. This quartet was composed in 1879 when the composer
was thirty-six. It was some ten years after the A minor Piano Concerto.
The CD is well produced achieving a fine programme
balance; four works that all deserve to become well known. The orchestra
is a group called Musica Vitae that has its base in Sweden although
they have played Europe-wide. They have a fine ability to project this
kind of string music that makes it full of vitality.
The programme notes although not fulsome are helpful.
The arrangement of the Grieg String Quartet in G
minor is worth the price of the CD alone. I cannot find another
recording of this incarnation of a very fine work. I must emphasise
that the arrangement lifts this quartet from a very good work to a fine
work. In fact it has become my current Grieg favourite. However the
other three works are excellent examples of the genre and it would be
a hardhearted person who was not moved by the playing and the repertoire
on this great disc.