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Asger Hamerik (1843-1923)
Choral-Symphony No. 7 for orchestra, chorus and mezzo Op. 40 (1906) [35:14]
Requiem for orchestra, chorus and contralto Op. 34 (1886-7) [43:33]
Randi Stene (mezzo)
Danish National Choir DR/Saul Zaks
Danish National Symphony Orchestra DR/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. Danish Radio Concert Hall, 6-7 Sept 2002 (Requiem); 12-15 May 2005 (Symphony 7).
DACAPO 8.226033 [78.51]
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The Danish composer Asger Hamerik moved to the USA in 1871 following the death two years previously of his teacher Hector Berlioz. In the States he held the directorship of Baltimore’s Peabody Institute which had an eighty-strong orchestra and a vibrant musical tradition. He stayed there for 27 years with the summer vacations being spent on the seaboard at Chester, Nova Scotia where both the works recorded here were written. In America he married, at the age of 51, the 26 year old Margaret Williams. They returned to Denmark in 1898 when the Peabody Institute ceased their orchestral concert series. This was the same year that the couple’s son, the composer Ebbe Hamerik was born. After living the gypsy life they settled in Copenhagen in 1900 where Asger died in 1923 at the age of 80.

Having recorded Hamerik’s other six symphonies, Dacapo now turn in blazingly confident performances of two of Hamerik’s most ambitious choral-orchestral works. Each is spectacular in scale and subject matter. They address the eternal verities; indeed the first title of the Seventh Symphony was Life, Death and Immortality. Each savours of Berlioz but the music-making has a confidence that defeats any fear that he is a mere epigone. This is music for the grandest cathedrals and concert halls. Rhythmic, antiphonal and other spatial effects abound and add to the deeply impressive impact of these pieces.

The Symphony was first completed in 1898 but revised several times until 1906. The words are by himself and his wife. Fascinating that the markings for the three movements belie what you hear. The Largo starts with an call to worship; one that cannot be ignored. The music is blazing and impetuous; splendid in thrust and retort. It has a strikingly Berlioz-like vehemence and smoking intensity relieved by some verdantly Verdian reflections. There were also a few moments that anticipate Delius in their Elysian contours. The wonderful repose carries over into the Andante Sostenuto with its idyllic and heart-easing peacefulness (try 5:12 onwards). The finale is marked Grave and again radiates a strong tranquil atmosphere: a sturdy yet suave benediction. This contrasts with some rampantly exultant writing reminiscent of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony. Altogether a very satisfying and stirring piece.

The Requiem has been recorded before. You can find it on a Kontrapunkt double CD set reviewed here .That version was conducted by the redoubtable Ole Schmidt. It’s a recording to be reckoned with but here is outfaced by a Dacapo’s splendid recording and performance as well as an even sturdier compelling coupling.

The Requiem is the longer of the two works. Its Requiem et kyrie radiates a sense of warming grandeur and ineffable strength. Compare this with the ragingly potent Dies irae with its romping vitality. The Dies irae plainchant is heard in orchestra and in the choir. This is sung and played with commanding verve and imperious hauteur. Listen to the almost forbidding unanimity of the choir and the Berliozian crump and groan of the tuba and trombones - almost a malediction. It is as if the brass writing has escaped from the March to the Scaffold from the Symphonie Fantastique. This is apocalyptic and majestic writing. Hamerik resorts, during this extended Dies Irae movement, to sonorous Verdian cantilena (3:12) before the return of the more volcanic writing at 13:17. The following Offertorium sounds similar to Fauré while in the Sanctus the trumpets ring out as if at the opening of the Seven Seals. The writing for the choir is dancing and fugal - the impression being of trailing clouds of glory across a Turner sunset. The concluding Agnus Dei has a smiling Dvořákian curvature. Randi Stene is in calming voice and the final words Requiescant in pace and Amen roundedly confer a final sleep.

Dacapo do their usual truly outstanding job in documenting the disc. The booklet runs to 36 pages of which the English section runs to six pages. Of course all the sung texts and their translations are given. The author is Knud Ketting.

This is one of those CDs where you want to play it to friends without telling them beforehand what they will be hearing. Reactions should be fascinating.

Rob Barnett



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