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Wilhelm PETERSON-BERGER (1867–1942)
The Complete Piano Music - Volume 3

Swedish folk music set for the piano (Dalsland reel – Waltz song from Ångermanland – Ebba Brahe’s reel – Old song reel – Reel from Jämtland); Entry of the June King; Memories of travel (On the road – Sunshine rain - The ladies of the manor – Distant view – Past); Earina (Invocation – Floral offering – Consecrating the weapons – Temple rite – The rhapsodist sings – Runes of good fortune – Promise); Three album leafs in dance-form (Menuett – Gavott – Vals); September
Olof Höjer (piano)
Rec. Swedish Broadcasting Corporation, Studio 2, Stockholm, 2 – 4 September 2003

There was a burst of musical eminence in the Nordic countries around the turn of the last century. In Norway the ageing Grieg was still producing wonderful music, but now a younger generation was making their voices heard; the generation of Richard Strauss, Max Reger, Claude Debussy. Head and shoulders above the rest rose Carl Nielsen in Denmark and Jean Sibelius in Finland. In Sweden there were at least three important names: Hugo Alfvén, Wilhelm Stenhammar and, the oldest of the three, Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, who also is the least known of them, internationally. As a musical and cultural personality he was probably more influential than either of his fellow-countrymen. He was an author, a music critic for more than 30 years in Dagens Nyheter (famous for his wit but also for his ruthlessness), he was a director at the Royal Swedish Opera 1908–10 when he directed (and translated) Tristan und Isolde, he was probably the most devoted Wagnerian in the country and also studied (and translated) Nietzsche. Moreover he composed in all genres: four operas, of which Arnljot (1907–09) is regarded as a kind of Swedish national opera, five symphonies, three violin sonatas, loads of cantatas for festive occasions. However probably his most enduring works are the songs with piano, especially his settings of poems by Nobel Prize winner Erik Axel Karlfeldt and his piano compositions. They were, and still are, much loved. A hundred years ago, when home music-making was still blossoming, his Frösöblomster (Flowers of Frösön) could be found in thousands of piano stools. He was a leading national romantic and in many of his best works there is a folk music feeling, even if the melodies usually were his own. Harmonically he was rooted in the late-romantic idiom, but he had an open mind and in some later works approaches the impressionists.

In this, the third volume of a projected complete edition of P-B’s piano music, Olof Höjer takes us from around 1906 to the end of World War One. Most of his writing for the piano consists of smaller pieces; even the celebrated Frösöblomster. Many of the pieces on this disc are dances, unassuming ditties maybe, but pleasant to listen to. But we also get two quite substantial multi-movement works, intended to be played as unities. The first of them, Memories of travel, very vividly creates an out-door atmosphere and there are "walking themes" in all the movements, except the central one, where the wanderer passes by a manor, hears music through the open window and stops to listen to one of the young maidens playing Chopin on the piano. The last movement is fascinating in so far as we can feel that the wanderer is reluctant to march on; he hesitates, looks back and the movement ends on the dominant ...

Earina, written in 1917, is an even longer work, lasting more than half an hour. "The title is derived from the Greek word ‘ear’ meaning spring (earinós, springlike) and the five movements of the work refer to ritual actions and magic rites that might have been part of some nature religion." ( From Peterson-Berger’s introduction to the first performance of the orchestral version of Earina.) A lot of P-B’s piano music can be labelled idyllic and some of these movements are also close to that idiom. Lend an ear to the first movement, or tone poem as he calls each movement, Invocation. Here is drama, heart-on-the-sleeve-intensity of a kind you would never expect from Peterson-Berger. There is also a degree of mystery. If you have encountered his Frösöblomster, this disc with its darker undertone might be the perfect corrective to a somewhat one-dimensional picture of the composer. The melodic freshness of his earlier works may be lacking to a degree but this music has its own attraction.

I derived much pleasure from these pieces, which I can’t remember ever hearing before. The technical side of this project is in good hands. Studio 2 in the Radio House in Stockholm is perfect for piano recording. The pianist, Olof Höjer, is an eminent advocate for Peterson-Berger’s music; I already own his 1990 recording of Frösöblomster and look forward to the next instalment in this series. Besides being a brilliant pianist – why not seek out his recording of Eric Satie’s complete piano music on this same label – he is also a sterling musicologist and an expressive author. His booklet text (24 pages – half of them in English!) is a model of its kind.

Musical by-ways these may be, but to wander them in the company of Peterson-Berger and Olof Höjer is a pleasure indeed.

Göran Forsling

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