The first thing to be said about this set is that it
is a fine compendium of works from a composer who is largely unknown
outside his homeland. It is a rare opportunity to hear four excellent
but forgotten works. It causes both joy and sadness. Joy that a composer
is rediscovered and presented to the musical public: sadness that such
music has lain unheard for so long and is still unlikely to become well
known to more than a very few people.
Asger Hamerik did not compose a great number of works;
his list extends only to Opus 41. However within this relatively small
catalogue there are some eight symphonies, four operas, five Nordic
suites and a requiem lasting over three quarters of an hour. Kontrapunkt
produced in 1991 this double CD containing four works from all periods
of his life. This affords an overview of a musical career spanning some
forty years. And not only is it a fine chronological survey it is also
an interesting selection of different forms. We have the Requiem
for choir, soloist and orchestra, an early Piano Quintet, a Concert
Romance for ‘Cello and Piano and finally his 6th
Symphony – the Symphonie Spirituelle.
A brief review of the composer's life and work will
not go amiss as he is hardly well known to most listeners outside Denmark.
Asger Hamerik was born in the town of Frederiksberg,
near the capital, Copenhagen on the 8th April 1843. Like
so many composers it was his mother who provided the musical influences
in the family. In fact it was her relatives who were to provide the
impetus and inspiration to the young man. She was directly related to
the Hartmanns and to the Hornemans. The Hartmanns in their turn were
relations of the Gades and the Windings. So, the entire mid to late
nineteenth century Danish music scene was virtually a family affair!
Hamerik’s father was Professor of Church History at Copenhagen University.
The young Hamerik studied piano and theory of music
with Gottfred Matthison-Hansen. Soon he was encouraged by Gade and Hartman
to begin to study composition. Perhaps due to family connections it
was not long before he was hearing his early compositions performed.
As many young musicians did, he travelled to Germany and studied for
a short time with Hans von Bülow; he made friends with Richard
Wagner and with Hector Berlioz in France. During this period of history
travel was impeded by the various wars taking place in Europe. His career
was hardly settled. There were various short-term residences in Italy
Perhaps the key event of his life was when he was offered
the directorship of the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore. He
had been recognised by the governors of that institution as a cosmopolitan
musician and composer who had been well schooled in the academic musical
practices of Europe and who was also an excellent composer. He was to
remain in this post for 27 years.
At the beginning of the 20th century he
retired from America and returned to Denmark. It is to be regretted
that he composed little in the remaining twenty-three years of his life.
He is said to have enjoyed a quiet retirement. He died on 13th
July 1923 aged eighty. As mentioned above he produced quite a large
output of works over the years from his early Ballade Roland
to his Op.41 Folk Variations for String Orchestra (1912).
The Requiem Op.34 is commonly held to be his
masterpiece. It is presented on the first of the two CDs in this collection.
The first work chronologically is the early Quintetto
Op.6. This work was written when the composer was 19 years old.
Hamerik himself claimed that it was never performed, and I understand
that this is its first recording. The piece has an unusual five movements
– opening with an adagio that seems to be quite ahead of its time harmonically.
Soon the pace increases only to fall again into a wistful slower theme.
There are many lovely tunes here. It is a piece that is full of contrasts.
The slow movement is particularly beautiful, although the Presto and
the Finale has much to interest and impress. It is definitely the work
of a young man and speaks of innocence as well as vitality. Yet here
and there we detect phrases and harmonies that seem to look forward
to later days – not so much in the composer’s own oeuvre but in western
music in general. This is a lovely work that deserves the recognition
it is due. However I doubt if it will become known to any but a few
cognoscenti; which is a pity. It would not be beyond the technique of
amateur chamber ensembles.
The Concert Romance for Cello and Piano Op.27
is a lovely work – I wish that it would never stop; it is in fact heart-easing
and heart-warming at one and the same time. It is a piece that could
do well if it was taken into the repertoires of the well-known cellists.
It was composed whilst the composer was on holiday in Copenhagen in
1878. The first performance was given a year later in Dresden. Danacord
records brought out a lovely version of this piece with orchestral accompaniment
as a part of their excellent Harmonious Families series (DACOCD526)
However, this present version is equally attractive and gives a lovely
impression of regret; a forgotten waltz perhaps. Lovely stuff. The cellist
Troels Svane Hermansen and the pianist Morten Mogensen play with conviction.
It would be so easy to mock a sentimental miniature like this.
In 1895 the Peabody Institute in Baltimore was due
to celebrate the centenary of the birth of its founder. The choice of
the governors was Asger Hamerik’s great masterpiece –the Requiem
(1887). This fine work was composed whilst the composer was on holiday
in the quiet fishing village of Chester on the coast of Nova Scotia.
The programme notes point out that Hamerik was not himself a Roman Catholic.
However he is known to have had a number of discussions with the incumbent
of Chester Village.
This is a masterpiece. In many ways it is the great-unknown
setting of the mass. Even if it nods to Berlioz for much of its inspiration
it is still a completely original creation. The work has six sections
– Requiem and Kyrie combined as Berlioz had done, Dies Irae, Offertorium,
Sanctus and Agnus Die.
The Dies Irae is a war-horse. It is a full seventeen
minutes of contrast. Great symphonic music. This shows that the composer
was totally at home in all departments of his craft. There is a lovely
alto solo in the Offertorio that seems to be quite in advance of its
date. There is something almost operatic about this music. I cannot
help but be reminded of Elgar's Sea Pictures. The mezzo-soprano
Minna Nyhus has a voice to die for. Truly beautiful. The Sanctus is
full of lovely brass fanfares – again reminiscent of Berlioz. All sorts
of musical devices come into play here – great contrapuntal and fugal
writing. The last section of the Requiem is the Agnus Dei. This
is quietly restrained. The Symphonic nature of this work and of the
Mass in general is reinforced by the references back to the ‘Requiem
Eternam’ music at the commencement of this work. This work encompasses
a number of styles – from plainsong through to the latest harmonic progressions
and effective use of the romantic orchestra. Yet it is a unity – words
and music are fused into one. And this is the way that any setting of
the mass ought to be.
If this music were to be exposed on Classic FM it would
knock the derivative Andrew Lloyd Webber Requiem setting off
The Symphonie Spirituelle was written to commemorate
the silver jubilee of Asger Hamerik as director of the Peabody Institute
in 1897. The work was directly influenced by a breakdown in industrial
relations. The woodwind players in New York and Baltimore were on strike.
So the composer was forced to compose this work for strings only. It
has been one of the few pieces by Hamerik to gain a reputation in the
concert halls. It is difficult to pinpoint influences in this work.
Perhaps it is possible to relate it to Schumann; the slow movement owes
perhaps something to Beethoven. I have noticed so much in this work
that makes me think of Elgar. Yet again, any reference is only of passing
interest. The fact is that Hamerik has created a lovely work that would
be at home in any concert programme. It is not a work that pushes the
musical boundaries. In many ways it is a retrospective of the nineteenth
century. However, that is all to the good. Innovation does not always
equal fine music. Whereas this work is well constructed, well scored
and a pleasure to listen to. I look forward to hearing the rest of this
composer’s symphonic works.
The quality of the sound seems a little hard edged
to my ear. In the Quintetto there tends to be a buzzing sound
from the lower range of the cello. Sometimes the piano part sounds muddy.
I would have liked the individual movements mastered as separate tracks.
I found myself having to guess where each was as I was listening in
preparation for the review. Let me hasten to add that I do not agree
with excerpting movements of any work – but when reviewing I often wish
to hear a bit that impressed (or caused me problems) again.
It would have been nice to have the words of the Requiem
– not every listener is familiar with the Latin Text of the mass. And
again I felt that the first CD with a timing of a mere 47 minutes was
a bit tight. But perhaps that is being churlish. In balance this is
a fine and adventurous production.
It would be unfair to mention any particular performer.
Save to say that all the contributors to this double disc seem to have
taken this very attractive music seriously. They have all done an excellent
job in selling this relatively unknown (outside Denmark) composer to
the rest of the musical world.