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Josef JONSSON (1887-1969)
Symphony No. 1
Op. 23, Nordland (1919-22) [49:53]: (I. Allegro energico poco agitato [10:43] – II. Andante quasi Adagio, poco tranquillo [13:28] – III. Allegretto pastorale [5:10] – IV. Molto Adagio. Allegro vivace [20:30])
Symphony No. 2 Op. 34 in D minor (1928-30) [20:28] (I. Allegro energico [6:56] – II. Scherzo: Vivace non troppo. Adagio. Scherzo [5:57] – III. Allegro vivace [7:35])
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Lü Jia
rec. DeGeer Hall, Norrköping 14–15 Sept 2001 (No. 1); 17–18 Sept 2001 (No. 2)



Swedish composer Josef Jonsson was born in Enköping but moved to Norrköping at the age of three. As a consequence of polio he was confined to a wheelchair all his life. He was given piano lessons at the age of ten but was mainly self-taught as a composer. He had some correspondence with Wilhelm Stenhammar, mostly concerning formal matters and he also took tuition with the principal conductor of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Ivar Hellman, who was also a composer.

To general music listeners in Sweden he is mainly – if at all – known as a composer of vocal music. He set poems by a number of the foremost Swedish poets, Pär Lagerkvist, Dan Andersson, Erik Axel Karlfeldt and Erik Gustaf Geijer among them and he wrote a lot of church music; his Missa Solemnis (1936) was regarded as “a Swedish masterpiece” by Kurt Atterberg. But he also composed orchestral music, including three symphonies, and his main influence was Max Reger, which shows not least in his frequent use of chromaticisms.

His first symphony – Herbert Connor in “Svensk musik Vol. 2” actually calls it a symphonic poem – is a monumental, solemn work. Its title “Nordland” refers to the poems – or rather excerpts from poems – that head each movement and that “reflect different aspects of typically Nordic nature and temperament” as Stig Jacobsson writes in his commentaries. But that doesn’t mean that this is programme music cast in a national romantic mould, picturesque tone painting à la Hugo Alfvén. Jonsson uses the poems as mood setters and formally the outer movements are set in strict sonata form. There is a tendency, though, for him to overload the music; there are so many ideas, so many motifs that are never fully developed.

Who is the warrior
that commands the ships,
and lets his golden banner
wave o’er his prow?
No peace seems to me
in that ship’s front;
it casts a warlike glow
around the Vikings.

This quotation from the Icelandic Edda, in William Reaves’ translation, heads the first movement, and there is indeed a warlike atmosphere in the opening motif, rhythmic and aggressive, fanfare-like, which recurs in various guises throughout the movement. More lyrical episodes create suitable contrasts but the lasting impression is one of forward movement and energy.

The second movement is inspired by a poem by Jacob Tegengren that starts:

The forests taught me to sing,
the wind whispering in the reeds.
The pine trees’ soughing harps
have but few strings
and their songs are mostly sombre. –
But now and then from summer meadows
sunshine and bright colours
stole into the poem’s dark weave.

and that’s exactly what the music says. It is quiet, murmuring, dark coloured but from ca 5:00 it gradually builds up to a climax at 5:47, whereupon it sinks back to almost a stand-still. At ca 7:00 there is a livelier, more chamber music-like episode, but the sombre atmosphere soon takes over again.

The short Allegretto pastorale, is in sharp contrast to the previous movement, dancing, boisterous, full of joy. It starts with A horn signal from a sunny mountain pasture, as Karl Erik Forsslund’s poem says, and this signal appears again and again throughout the movement. But in the finale we are at once back in the darkest darkness, which persists through the Molto Adagio part, even though there are rays of light shining through the gloomy atmosphere. At about 4:30, after a couple of harp arpeggios, the music changes character: now it is lively, airy – but that doesn’t last for long. The rest of the long, maybe overlong, movement is built on the contrast between light and darkness. Near the end a solemn chorale appears, grows to a climax and then dies away in a gossamer Nordic twilight.

There is such freshness about this symphony and Jonsson’s orchestration fits like a glove. Although the basic character is solemn it is so full of rhythmic vitality and power that it should appeal to anyone with a taste for late-romantic orchestral music.

The Second Symphony, written about ten years after the first, is much shorter and the thematic material is much more concentrated. The first movement literally sparkles with energy and immediately catches the listener’s attention. In the second movement, Scherzo, vivid and lighthearted, Jonsson has inserted an Adagio, in the manner of Berwald, which makes it a three-part movement. The finale is full of contrasts and has a grandiose ending. The two works are very different, but each in its own way is outstanding and it is a pity that this music isn’t played more often. We have to be grateful, though, that it is available on records at long last. It is only to be hoped that his third symphony, which Jonsson regarded as his masterpiece, will also appear some day.

The Norrköping Symphony Orchestra under their Chinese principal conductor Lü Jia play the music with obvious affection. The sound is everything one could wish. The booklet has a good essay in two languages by the indefatigable annotator of Swedish music, Stig Jacobsson.

Strongly recommended!

Göran Forsling



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