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Helmer ALEXANDERSSON (1886-1927)
Overture in C minor (1910) [10:10]
Symphony No.2 in G minor (1914/1919) [38:33]
Uppsala Chamber Orchestra/Paul Mägi
rec. 11-12 January 2006, Uppsala University Aula
STERLING CDS 1076-2 [48:48]

Enter “Swedish Composers” into Wikipedia and you get a list 126 names long. In the relatively specialist field of classical music even the most ardent admirer would concede that Swedish music, on the world stage at least, is in turn a specialist area. From the list of 126 jump some names amongst others - Hugo Alfvén, Kurt Atterburg, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Dag Wirén, Ture Rangström and Lars-Erik Larsson - figure as 20th century composers and indeed symphonists of considerable stature. The record labels BIS and CPO in particular have produced various series of discs proving beyond a shadow of doubt that they were composers and musicians of great worth. Missing from the list is the name of Helmer Alexandersson. Not that one should conclude that he does not deserve to be in such company however it does underline the unavoidable fact that his is a little (if at all) known name. All the more praise therefore to the enterprising Sterling label for unearthing these two works.

As the extensive and informative liner-notes explain, he lived most of his 41 years in relative obscurity and eventually died in extreme poverty: certificates being signed to that effect permitting the City of Stockholm to cover the cost of his burial. So to the music. Neither work demands resurrection or world-wide acclaim. I’d have to say that any of the symphonies by the composers listed above are of greater worth. The disc opens with the 1910 Overture in C minor. The writer of the liner-note hears something akin to Eric Coates here. Sadly the allusion eludes me. This seems to me rather sober and opaque with nothing of the rhythmic élan or melodic memorability of the King of British Light Music. The well-behaved audience at this live recording seem similarly underwhelmed, the polite applause fading quickly.

Alexandersson’s First Symphony is described as a youthful work which the composer listed as “…. not going to be performed”. The Symphony No.2 is the major work featured here. It is in the standard four movements although as originally conceived in 1914 it was a three movement piece to which the third movement Intermezzo was added in 1919. The writer describes this interpolation as being “strikingly innovative”. Given that the year of its composition/insertion is the same as Charles Ives’ Orchestral Set No.3 and Janáček’s Katya Kabanova the assertion seems a little bold particularly when for me its musical association is with the pizzicato scherzo of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 of 1877. But Alexandersson was right to feel that the structure of the Symphony in its three movement incarnation was unbalanced. The first movement lasts nearly seventeen minutes, which is as long as the original second movement and finale put together. The thematic material feels over-stretched by the extended length of the movement. Alexandersson relies on repetition of the essentially simple but appealing melodies over a Sibelius-like series of pedal notes. Track 2 2:00 gives a good idea of the style and quasi-heroic mood here. The slow movement is placed second and is lyrical and flowing in an attractive but unassuming way. A minor key trumpet fanfare leads into the second subject group which develops along similarly easily assimilated ways. The third is for strings alone and to my ear is by far the weakest part of the work. Melodically limited and reactionary even by the standards of the rest of the piece it feels like an interpolation. The rest of the disc is efficiently played if lacking any real fire in the collective bellies of the Uppsala Chamber Orchestra which in this movement suffers from scrappy ensemble and suspect intonation. Although marked Allegretto my strong feeling is that conductor Paul Mägi seriously misjudges the tempo of this movement; essentially a light music miniature. It needs to barrel along with buoyant good humour but in this performance it plods and the music is ill-served. Things improve in the Finale. Even the orchestra sounds more engaged, and the length of the piece is better judged although once again it has to be said that the audience reaction is nothing like as fervent as that described in the liner-note regarding the first performances.

So as ever, whilst warmly welcoming the chance to hear a rare symphony I find it hard to enthuse much. One last nail I’m afraid - the playing time of the CD comes in at a miserly sub fifty minutes which is hard to justify for a full price disc these days. If any reader is coming afresh to Swedish symphonic composers I strongly urge you to investigate any of those listed at the start of this review - a random selection of their works would give greater musical satisfaction than this modest addition to the repertoire. The Lars-Erik Larsson symphonies are probably the closest stylistically but even they have a technical assurance and melodic and formal command that far outstrips the best that Alexandersson can muster.

A disc for Swedish symphonic music completists only.

Nick Barnard

see also review by Rob Barnett



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