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
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
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
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.
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
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]
DANISH CELLO CONCERTOS
EMIL HARTMANN (1836-96) Cello Concerto
ASGER HAMERIK(1843-1923) Romance (1898)
FRANZ NERUDA (1843-1915) Cello Concerto
SIEGFRIED SALOMON (1885- ) Cello
Morten Zeuthen (cello)
The Bohemian Chamber
Philharmonic/Douglas Bostock CLASSICO CLASSCD 315