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Emil SJÖGREN (1853-1918)
Violin Sonatas

No.1 in G minor Op.19 (1884-85)
Dan Almgren (violin) and Stefan Bojsten (piano)
No.2 in E minor Op.24 (1888)
Nils-Erik Sparf (violin) and Lucia Negro (piano)
No.3 in G minor Op.32 (1899-1900)
Bernt Lysell (violin) and Esther Bodin (piano)
No.4 in B minor Op.47 (1906)
Lennart Fredriksson (violin) and Ulrika Berglund (piano)
No.5 in A minor Op.61 (1912-13)
Leo Berlin (violin) and Greta Erikson (piano)
Two Fantasy Pieces Op.27 (1888)
Poème in C major Op.40 (c 1905)
Christer Thorvaldsson (violin) and Elisif Lundén-Bergfelt (piano)
Recorded in Studio 2, Radiohuset, Stockholm, 1984-85
PROPRIUS PRCD 9117-18 [2 CDs 147.15]

This Proprius disc has made quite an impression on me. Sjögren had really only been a name to me before – and that a faint one – and one I primarily associated with song but here are some fine, lyrical and effortlessly constructed works for violin and piano that show real flair. A few words about the composer; born in Stockholm in 1853 he studied at the Conservatory there from the age of seventeen and gravitated to the salons of the city and writing song settings. In his mid twenties he went abroad to Berlin and for a decade, although fairly inconspicuous, he continued to travel to the continent. It was in Paris, in fact, that he completed the first of the sonatas in this double CD conspectus of the violin works. Back home in 1886 he began to teach – Stenhammar was briefly a pupil – and he embarked on a new phase of his musical life by becoming an organist at Johannes Church in Stockholm. He married, made repeated trips to Paris – where he was quite popular – but suffered increasing ill health and died in 1918.

The biography lacks violent upheaval but then most people’s do. What Sjögren cultivated, maybe due to his early immersion in song composition, was a distinct lyrical gift and a compositional technique to sustain it. The violin works are direct and appealing and were performed by some of the most outstanding players of the day; Émil Sauret premiered the First, Tor Aulin the Second (with Sjögren at the piano) and the Third, accompanied this time by erstwhile Sjögren pupil Wilhelm Stenhammar. The fourth was premiered in 1907 by the young Frenchman André Mangeot who was later to become so prominent a figure in British musical life encouraging the revival of the chamber music of Purcell and Locke and playing and recording Warlock, Vaughan Williams and so much else. The Fifth was first performed by Georges Enescu, no less. Quite a roll call of fiddle players.

The first sonata falls into a three-movement structure; the others utilise four. The First opens in High Romanticism, lyrically effulgent and brimming over with melody. The Allegro vivace has a Grieg like second subject and a Brahmsian energy and in between there’s real elasticity of phrasing and some soaring E string work. The songful slow movement with its rocking piano accompaniment is full of delicious sentiment that shows his strong gift for organisation. The second subject is more sharply etched but what one most remembers is the unforced naturalness of expression that Sjögren cultivates and how naturally it seems to fall under the fingers. The finale is open hearted and rhythmically strong, with good opportunities to show some bowing dexterity; the ending is finely characterised and dramatic. Here’s a work that inquisitive violinists should take a look at. It’s securely in the German-Nordic emotive world and would make a rewarding change from the canonical Brahms and Grieg and Franck.

The Second Sonata intrigued me. It opens in Grieg influenced impressionist reflection, sounding uncannily – though not unexpectedly in the circumstances – proto-Delian. But it soon ratchets itself up embracing a more direct romanticism. There are some fine dynamics from the pairing of Nils-Erik Sparf (violin) and Lucia Negro (piano) and I admired in particular the way the latter responds to the piano-led song embedded, burnished and auburn hued, in this movement. Sjögren alternates soaring lyric and reflective intimacy with a strong sense for drama. He also exercises nice touches as when, for example, the bass in the piano shadows the violin in single notes and then quietly "relinquishes" the job; an exercise in the establishment and relaxation of tension. The slow movement has some little classical "fillips" along the way with a central section that feeds on contrast by being elegantly refined; some of the rhythmic emphases are deeply Grieg-like – there’s no escaping the influence. The finale is lyric but tinged with the salon style – light, effective, not straining for Romantic effect.

The Third is perhaps not quite so compelling. Its effusive lyricism is attractive but a mite unrelieved. Its occasional Brahmsian influence is most evident in the opening movement and there is a sweet simplicity throughout. There are some delicate pizzicato episodes in the scherzo and a rather disappointing Andante. The finale adopts a cosmopolitan, jaunty air. There’s confident and assertive melodic impress and some vamping right hand from the piano and perky little bass notes in the left. An attractive work rather than an impressive one. The Fourth Sonata dates from 1906. There is some unusually whimsical and decorative writing for the piano – the piano parts aren’t particularly subservient, thankfully – and some skittering for the violin protagonist and this air of humour is continued in the fizzing scherzo, quicksilver and darting. The slow movement is – for him – unusually active. His Andantes tend to be reflective and intimately lyrical but here a spine of deliberation augments the songfulness – though Sjögren’s ability to relax into generous lyricism is never compromised. I liked the finale; it’s cocky and decisive. The last of the sonatas, the one premiered by Enescu, continues the thread of his compositional imperatives. Opening with lyricism but elegance there are some hints that Sjögren had been listening to the French impressionists – especially true in the piano part and the chording patterns he uses – though he never abandons his robustly lyrical self. The scherzo is rather note spinning this time but a deeper note is struck in the Andante (marked con nobile) where there is real keening depth and a concentrated sense of melodic direction as well as admirable sweep. The finale gives us some staunchly chordal piano, lyrical violin and then some virtuosic passagework for the fiddle player. The close is placid, gentle, and reflective.

To complete the pleasures of these discs – each sonata played by a different pairing and they’re all excellent players – there are the Fantasy pieces and the Poème in C. The first of the Fantasy pieces, an Andante sostenuto, is impetuously lyrical and dramatic and the second is a salon style charmer that has just the right amount of gravity to keep it moving. The Poème is more substantial. It’s written quite freely, rather more freely than the slow movements of his Sonatas, in a rather rhapsodic style that never leaves behind his essential lyrical generosity.

The booklet is packed with information and musical examples; the print is clear, the style attractive; texts are in Swedish and English. As supporting documentation it makes a fine case for Sjögren and I’m more than happy to recommend these two discs. In fact his finest sonatas deserve wide hearing – and I hope that that’s precisely what they get. The Second is available on BIS CD 995 coupled with the Two Lyric Pieces and played by Per Enokson and Kathryn Stott but this Proprius conspectus gives you the Complete Sonatas.

Jonathan Woolf

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