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Dag WIRÉN (1905-1986)
Symphony No. 2 op. 14 (1939) [30’26]
Symphony No. 3 op. 20 (1944) [22’12]
Concert Overture No. 1 op. 2 (1931) [7’45]
Concert Overture No. 2 op. 16 (1940) [5’11]
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. De Geerhallen, Norrköping, 3-5 February 1999
CPO 999 677-2 [65’38]

I’ve noticed that the other reviews of Dag Wirén’s music on Musicweb start with a mention of how popular his Serenade is to the exclusion of his other compositions.  So, I’ll be different and not say anything about it!
In his home country of Sweden, Wirén was considered to belong to a group known as the “Composers of the Thirties”, which included among its members, Gunnar de Frumerie and Lars-Erik Larsson.  The group’s name derived from the fact that its members wrote their first significant works during that decade.  Membership of a group tends to imply friendships and shared experiences such as the Mighty Handful of Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Cui, but in this case, it seems to be more a chronological and stylistic connection. The style here is neo-classical, but in Wirén’s case at least, it is a much more lyrical neo-classicism than that of Stravinsky, Prokofiev or Milhaud, with whom he is roughly contemporary.
His output was relatively limited: forty-four published works, including five symphonies - the first was withdrawn by the composer after publication and has never been performed - and five string quartets, three ballets and nine film scores (including Ingmar Bergman’s A Lesson In Love).
Wirén’s musical credo was “I believe in Bach, Mozart, Nielsen and absolute music”, but this is not entirely an accurate reflection of his music.  The CD notes, which are informative and comprehensive, refer to Haydn and Sibelius as more reliable signposts to his style.  Certainly, my first listening to Symphony No. 2 immediately brought Sibelius to mind.  “Restless” is the adjective that best describes the whole symphony: scurrying string figures and twittering winds dominate the three movements.  This is not to say that there is no room for melody – quite the contrary.  In each movement, there is a quite beautiful cantabile theme which provides the necessary contrast with the con moto activity surrounding it.
Kurt Atterburg, another composer well served of late by CPO, was also a music critic at the time of the premiere of Wirén’s Second Symphony in 1940.  He commented on the pastoral nature of the music as he saw it, and the “great refinement and artistic economy” of the instrumentation.  There is no question that the music has an outdoorsy feel to it – the grand sweep of nature – but if we are going to associate mental images with the music – something Wirén didn’t believe in – I would plump for forests and snow-capped mountains under sunny skies rather than pastures and meadows.  Perhaps this is trying too hard, and it is simply better just to listen to, and enjoy this fine music!
Symphony No. 3 opens in an even more Sibelian way, but as the theme is developed, the mood changes to an aggressive, almost militaristic one, which reminds one of Nielsen.   Given that the symphony was composed during 1943-4, the military tone epitomised by the drums is perhaps not surprising.  The slow movement is elegiac for the most part, and recalls Vaughan Williams, particularly the Pastoral Symphony and Fifth Symphony.  Towards the end, it opens out into a fanfare in the brass which then fades into silence.  The third movement bursts upon us with more of the percussion and brass that closed the first movement. Intertwined throughout the movement - see below - is a gentler theme which metamorphoses into a chorale-like fanfare which is the symphony’s climax.
The structure of the symphony is novel and interesting. Each of the first two movements concentrates on the development of a single theme.  In the first movement, the theme is created gradually from an ascending scale from which notes are gradually removed to provide the theme.  These two themes then compete with each other for dominance in the third movement.  Compositionally, this makes the entire symphony more akin to an extended single sonata movement but with two pauses.
The Third Symphony is a substantial advance in complexity and development of ideas from its very pleasant but relatively simple predecessor, and its lack of recognition and recordings - there is one other on Phono Suecia coupled with the cello concerto and early Sinfonietta (see reviews by JW & RB) - is mystifying. CPO have also released Wirén’s two other extant symphonies (4, 5 – 999 563) which I have ordered – expect a review of it in the near future.
The two concert overtures that conclude the disc are highly enjoyable, well-crafted examples of the genre, and would not be out of place opening a symphony concert programme.  However, as we all know, symphony concert programmers are very conservative, and rarely schedule any music - other than new compositions - that isn’t from a well-known composer.
When I put this disc in the player for the first time, I was intending to do some work on the computer.  Very soon, my attention was drawn away from my work to the music.  After it had played through the first time, I played it again immediately afterwards in the car.  Throughout the course of the following week whilst writing this review, it has been in one CD player or another at least once a day.  Rarely has music from a composer new to me made such an immediate impression.
CPO has done sterling work in bringing 20th century Swedish music to a wider audience with their recent symphony cycles of Kurt Atterberg and Wilhelm Peterson-Berger.  Anyone who enjoys the symphonies of Sibelius, and in fact, well-crafted, melodic 20th century orchestral music in general, should not hesitate over this disc.
David J Barker


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