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