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Swedish Society

Wilhelm PETERSON-BERGER (1867 – 1942)
The Ladies’ Album - The Complete Piano Music - Volume 1

A Gentry Tune; Valse burlesque; Canzonetta; Fuga; Valzerino; Law of the Vikings; Wedding March, Bridal March; The Ladies’ Album; Tone-Paintings: In the Forest – Chiming Bells – Seascape.
Olof Höjer (piano)
rec. Rosenberg Hall, Malmö College of Music, November-December 1999. DDD
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On my reverse travel through the piano music of Wilhelm Peterson-Berger I have reached the very beginning, the period 1883 – 1896. These were his formative years. In the memoirs he recalls his meeting with music. It was his mother playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and P-B was seven years old. The family had just moved to Burträsk in the north of Sweden or rather in the middle of Sweden. People in Stockholm tend to regard everything north of that city as Norrland, but actually Frösön, the island in Lake Storsjön in Jämtland, where P-B later in his life settled after many years in Stockholm, is situated practically in the middle of Sweden. Burträsk is not more than some 100 kilometers to the north from there.

The family was highly cultivated, his father could recite Homer in the original language and his mother was a very good pianist. She gave him his first piano lessons and they used to play piano duets. He also writes in his memoirs that very early he started to compose piano pieces which he gave away to friends and relatives. As far as is known nothing of this oeuvre has been preserved for posterity, except the first piece on this disc, En Herrskapstrall (A Gentry Tune), presumably written in 1883 by a 16-year-old P-B. It is a ditty, maybe, but it is fresh and lively, a dance tune - schottisch is still a popular dance among people interested in what is generally known as old-time dance music. It is an interesting fact, although Olof Höjer doesn’t mention it in his informative and well-written booklet notes, that this tune became a hit song in Sweden in the early 1960s. Adorned with a suitable text and sung by the best Swedish popular singer ever, Alice Babs, it was soon hummed by everyone. Alice Babs, by the way, might be known also internationally among jazz lovers for her collaboration with Duke Ellington. She was born in 1924, became enormously popular as a jazz singer in the late 1930s. According to some moralizers, a danger to youth. Later she also trained her beautiful soprano voice and sang Bach and Mozart and Elizabethan Lute Songs and was appointed Court Singer by the King of Sweden. She is still singing and, remarkably, sounding almost as good as she did 60+ years ago.

En herrskapstrall was probably written for some dance occasion and as played here is given the right rhythmic lilt. Dance rhythms are common features in P-B’s compositions and among these early pieces we also find a Valse burlesque which might have been inspired by traditional fiddlers. It is quite exciting and also has a contrasting lyrical middle section in the minor key, pointing forward to his mature work. His Valzerino is, contrary to its title, a grand piece, playing for more than seven minutes, and reflects his interest in Chopin. His two marches, written for weddings in the mid-1890s, are fresh and melodic, powerful without being pompous.

The Ladies’ Album, written in 1895 when P-B was in his late twenties and on the way to his break-through as a composer, consists of seven pieces, which are all dedicated to female friends and relatives. They are of very different character, presumably mirroring the characters of their respective dedicatees. Some of them are dreamy, others (No. 6) virtuosic, fiery. We can find pre-echoes of Frösö Flowers, which were in the pipe-line, and also the opera Arnljot. The very last of them is probably the masterpiece.

His three Tone-Paintings are fascinating, especially In the Forest. The long heavy bass notes, and later bass chords, depict to me at least, the monolithic trunks of the pine trees of northern Sweden, while all around them you hear the chirping of little birds. Near the end of the composition you also hear running water. P-B loved the countryside and you often find references to it in his music. Here he goes far beyond being only inspired by it, rather absorbed in it. The last of them, Seascape, also shows P-Bs nature-loving attitude. To many artists the sea is a threat, an enemy and many are the paintings and compositions where man’s fight against roaring waves is depicted. In P-B’s view the sea is friendly, mildly rocking.

Just as in volumes 2 review and 3 review Olof Höjer is the ideal companion through Peterson-Berger’s landscape. I still think the best starting point – if you want to give P-B a try, which he is well worth – is Frösö Flowers. (Swedish Society Discofil SCD 1097 review) But volume two has also a great deal to offer. There Peterson-Berger is an even more consummate artist than in the volume under consideration, but it has been fascinating to hear how it all started. I will eagerly await the continuation of the series. I have already mentioned the booklet notes, which not only have in-depth comments on the music but also outline P-B’s life during the period and give a quite substantial chronology. There is moreover a wealth of photographs, one of them showing his mother at the piano.

Göran Forsling

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