> HAMERIK symphonies 5,6 8.224161 [JF]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Asger Hamerik (1843-1923)
Symphony No. 5 in G minor Op.36 (Symphonie sérieuse) (1889-91)
Symphony No.6 in G major (Symphonie Spirituelle) Op.38 (1897)
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Dausgaard– conductor
Recorded at the Helsingborg Concert Hall on 15th December 1997, 11th –12th June 1998 and 25th –26th May 2000.
DACAPO 8.224161 [68.16]


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The Fifth Symphony on this disc should have been sufficient to give Asger Hamerik a place in the annals of musical and compositional history as a composer of fine stature. The slow movement of this work touches on the sublime if not quite reaching the height of genius. Yet to most listeners, especially outside Denmark, his name is a closed book. Of course, it is fair to say that apart from the ubiquitous Carl Nielsen, very little Danish music is listened to or understood by the vast majority of British and American listeners. Da Capo, Danacord and Kontrapunkt have recently produced CDs which have helped to restore this keynote figure to his rightful place. It would be fair to say that during Hamerik’s lifetime he was almost as well known as that great and also largely ignored composer Niels W Gade.

Asger was born in the town of Frederiksberg, near Copenhagen in 1843. His father was a professor of church history at the capital’s university. However it was on his mother’s side that the connection with music was most obvious. She was related to the Hartmanns and to the Hornemans. I have recently reviewed a disc of music by the Hartmanns and I think I mentioned there how that family was related to Niels and Axel Gade and also to August Winding. So Hamerik’s musical credentials were ideal.

He spent four years studying musical theory and piano followed by much practical advice from Gade and Winding. He travelled to Germany, studying with Hans von Bülow and then France. During these travels he became friends with both Wagner and Berlioz. European wars made his life somewhat difficult and caused him to be unsettled. He lived and worked at various times in France and in Italy. Eventually, his growing status as a cosmopolitan composer was recognised by the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore. He was to be director of the conservatory there for some 27 years.

In 1900 he returned to Denmark where he composed little and enjoyed a tranquil retirement. He died in 1923, aged eighty.

A brief look at his catalogue in the current Grove reveals quite a large output. There are three operas, including La Vendetta that was in the form of a one-act opera. This form was to be used by Mascagni and Leoncavallo in their most famous works. There were seven symphonies, five Nordic Suites for orchestra, and a number of shorter orchestral pieces. There is a Requiem, which I had the pleasure of reviewing a few months ago, much choral music and a corpus of chamber works.

The first work on this disc is the Fifth Symphony in G minor. It was given the soubriquet ‘sérieuse’ by the composer. This piece was composed over the two or three years between 1889 and 1891. To put the symphony into context it is worth having a glance as to what other composers were writing at his time. Elgar had written Froissart in 1890, but was still mainly producing ‘lighter’ works. The Serenade for Strings was not to follow until 1892. Nielsen gave us his First Symphony in 1891 which is relevant to the study of Danish music. The only other symphonies of this period were Dvorak’s Eighth, Chausson’s Bb and Edward German’s Symphony No. 1. Bruckner’s Eighth had been completed in 1887.

Hamerik’s Symphonie Sérieuse was composed in Baltimore during his directorship at the Peabody Institute. However it is believed that it did not receive its first performance until 1895.

Looking at this work from the perspective of today it is easy to start to assign influences from, and similarities to, other composers. This can be fun, but is usually quite a useless sport. Most often we assign likenesses to composers whose works the writer in question cannot possibly have heard. However music does seem to be in the air, and most composers do take an interest in what is happening in the musical world. Hamerik would have heard and read much music at Peabody, so influences and allusions there will almost certainly be.

Berlioz was once a mentor of Asger Hamerik and it is clear that the concept of the idée fixe in the Fifth Symphony probably derived from him. We know that Hamerik was acquainted with the Symphonie Fantastique. This idée fixe is used from the very beginning of the first movement. The theme is in two contrasting parts – a motif of a minor third followed by a short chromatic after phrase.

The first movement, which is in conventional sonata form builds on this theme, it being announced in the Largo introduction. This is great music, perhaps not showing genius but exhibiting all the qualities of well crafted and well considered music. The music is a powerful mixture of stress and relaxation, with the second subject being particularly fine. It is well scored with Hamerik showing a good appreciation of orchestral technique. The slow movement is perhaps the finest thing I have heard by Asger Hamerik. The programme notes liken it to a Bruckner slow movement – and so perhaps it is. However, I feel that Elgar is nearer the mark. Two people to whom I played this movement thought so too. It is almost like finding an Adagio to some lost symphony by the middle-aged Englishman. To my ear this alone justifies buying the CD.

The Scherzo owes its tone and structure to Beethoven, but this makes it nonetheless attractive. Once again we hear the idée fixe – this time hammered out on trombones. This is happy and gay music that only has the edges knocked off it towards the conclusion. As an example of a ‘classically’ structured Scherzo it is second to none. The final movement opens with a very dark, slow passage. Once again we hear the idée fixe – this time in its entirety. Soon, the darkness is lifted and the music begins to soar towards radiance. After another quiet passage the faster material begins. This is good stuff – exciting and challenging at the same time. There are frequent changes of mood in this Allegro which contribute to the movement’s interest. There are some fine tunes that are taken up, used and then discarded.

The Symphonie Spirituelle in G major 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 for strings only. This work has been one of the few pieces by Hamerik to gain a reputation in the concert halls. It is also the first Hamerik symphony to appear on record; it was recorded by the Boyd Neel Orchestra just after the Second World War.

The work is in four contrasting movements. The first movement is a conventional sonata form piece with a somewhat ‘hymn-like’ second subject. However, there is much of interest here with fine passage writing for strings. It is quite clear that Hamerik was at home with this medium. The scherzo makes use of two folk tunes, which are not identified by the programme notes. However, what is perhaps structurally unique about this work is the relationship between this movement and the slow movement. Hamerik uses some of the material of the scherzo as the basis for a set of variations in what is an extremely lyrical Andante Sostenuto. The last movement has references to the initial subject of the opening movement. This symphony is not quite cyclic in form, however there is a definite sense of unity and purpose here.

It is difficult and perhaps misguided to try to pinpoint influences in this work. Perhaps it is possible to relate it to Schumann; the slow movement owes something to Beethoven. I have noticed so much on this work that makes me think of Elgar, especially the Introduction and Allegro and the Serenade for Strings. Yet again, any reference is only of passing interest. The fact is that Hamerik has created a fine work that would be at home in any concert programme and in the repertoire of any orchestra. 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. It is a well constructed work, full of felicitous touches and displaying a fine understanding of what strings can and cannot do. It is an excellent example of Late Romantic music and a such it is hard to fault.

The two symphonies are well presented on this disc. The sound quality is excellent, all the nuances of the playing are clear and well defined. I am impressed with the programme notes provide by Da Capo and written by Knud Ketting. They are an example of the kind of comprehensive notes that I like.

Altogether a fine issue that reveals a composer who deserves to be well known and not just the preserve of a few cognoscenti. A good addition to the range of excellent Scandinavian Symphonic works.

John France


Other reviews

ASGER HAMERIK: Jewish Trilogy, Concert romance for Cello and Orchestra. EBBE HAMERIK: Cantus firmus V, Concerto molto breve for oboe and orchestra.   Henrik Steensgard: Cello, Jorgen Frederiksen: Oboe, The Danish Philharmonic Orchestra, South Jutland Moshe Atzmon. Danacord DACOCD 526 63m DDD. see also review by John France

Asger Hamerik (1843-1923) Requiem Op. 34 (1887) Quintetto Op. 6 (1862) Concert Romance for 'cello and piano Op. 27 (1879) Symphonie Spirtuelle for string orchestra Op. 38 (1897) Minna Nyhus – mezzo-soprano The Danish National Symphony Choir The Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra Ole Schmidt – conductor Troels Svane Hermansen – ‘cello Morten Mogensen – piano Astrid Christensen –viola Søren Elbaek –violin Date or location of recording not supplied: Published 1991. KONTRAPUNKT 32074/75 [CD1: 47:07; CD2 63:20]

(1836-96) Cello Concerto (1880)
(1843-1923) Romance (1898)
(1843-1915) Cello Concerto (1887)
(1885-  ) Cello Concerto (1920)
Morten Zeuthen (cello) The Bohemian Chamber Philharmonic/Douglas Bostock CLASSICO CLASSCD 315

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