The Swedish composer Franz Berwald
came from a musical family; his father, taught him the violin
from an early age. He soon appeared in concerts and started
working in the Royal Chapel in 1812, playing the violin in
the court orchestra and the opera, and embarking on his first
compositions. His Violin Concerto was first performed by his
brother August in 1821, but was not a success. Berwald received
a scholarship from the Swedish King, enabling him to study in
Berlin, but to make ends meet he was forced to start a physiotherapy
clinic there which proved to be significantly more successful,
so much so that he was forced to stop composing for a time.
Indeed throughout his life Berwald was a businessman first and
composer second; on his return to Sweden he later became manager
of a sawmill and glassworks!
his marriage and a move to Vienna he resumed composition in
1841. Over the course of the next few years Berwald wrote the
four symphonies heard on these CDs. The Symphony No. 1 in
G minor, "Sérieuse", was the only one of his symphonies
he heard during his lifetime. Indeed it was not until many years
after his death, with performances of the remaining symphonies,
that Berwald’s originality as a composer began to be appreciated.
Nevertheless his works rarely appear on concert programmes although
there have been several recordings by distinguished advocates
such as Sixten Ehrling and Igor Markevitch. The present
set, containing the majority of Berwald’s surviving oeuvre,
was recorded in London in 1976 and issued the following year.
This could not have been familiar music to the RPO back then
- indeed it probably still isn’t - and there are signs here
and there of unfamiliarity; nevertheless this is an inexpensive
way of getting to know Berwald’s music, even if individual performances
have been bettered elsewhere.
The four symphonies
are given well-crafted performances, perhaps just lacking the
last degree of panache. The Sinfonie singulière, probably
Berwald’s best-known work, has an energy and imagination
which is not always apparent in his other works or indeed in
any music of its time. Robert Layton likens the symphony’s transparent
textures to the quality of light found in northern hemispheres,
and there is certainly something luminous about Berwald’s scoring.
Sometimes, surprisingly, it is the music of Nielsen which is
called to mind, even the title of the opening movement, Allegro
fuocoso, has a Nielsen-like ring to it. The slow movement
is in Berwald’s most lyrical vein, and imaginatively encloses
the scherzo within it, a structural device that Berwald was
to use on several occasions. The finale brings the symphony
to a suitably energetic conclusion. This work was not heard
sérieuse has a fresh, open-air feel to it that at times
recalls Dvořák. There is a long-drawn lyricism in the slow
movement, while his scherzo brings Mendelssohn’s fairies to
mind, while in the Capricieuse Berwald strives to create
a sense of structural unity by using recurring themes in the
first movement, rather like Schumann in his Fourth Symphony.
The work as we know it today is the result of a painstaking
reconstruction from Berwald’s sketches, the full score having
disappeared shortly after Berwald’s death. The E flat Symphony,
contemporary with the Sinfonie singulière, is a slighter
work but still pleasant to listen to.
Berwald’s two concertos
are given stirring performances by Marian Migdal and Arve Tellefsen.
Both are charming but hardly in the bravura tradition of other
nineteenth century concertos. The rest of this set is filled
out with a number of overtures and symphonic poems which demonstrate
different aspects to the Swedish composer’s muse.
Well worth investigating,
then, if you are new to Berwald’s world. Sound throughout is well-balanced
analogue stereo and there are good introductory notes in the booklet.