> Musica Vitae: Rosenberg, Sibelius, Stenhammer, Grieg [JF]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Musica Vitae
Hilding Rosenberg (1892-1988) The Congress Overture
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) Rakastava Suite Op.14
Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) Chitra Suite Op.43
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) String Quartet in G minor (arranged for string orchestra by Thomas Liljeholm) Op.27
Musica Vitae conducted by Michael Bartosch
Recorded at Hemmesjo Church 14th –16th May 2001
INTIM MUSIC IMCD 076 [70.17]


Crotchet  £11.75 AmazonUK   AmazonUS

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 and works.

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 of Haydn.

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 its best.

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 fateful.

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 here.

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 1862.

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.

John France


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