RECORD OF THE MONTH
Gösta NYSTROEM (1890-1966)
Sinfonia breve (1929-31) [19:30]
Sinfonia del mare (1946-48) [36:44]
Malena Ernman (mezzo)
Malmö SymfoniOrkester/Christoph König
rec. Breve: Mar 2006; Mare: Jan 2007, Malmö Concert Hall, Sweden. DDD
It's an old and salutary lesson. What we praise to the skies others deride. What we condemn as worthless or at least flawed others zealously endorse. We love that pseudonymous orchestra and allegedly shabby fourth-rate conductor whose battered LP opened the door to a classic work. We then learn - benighted fools that we were - that this is dross beside versions recorded by the great or not so great names. Hold steadfast to those first affections but keep your mind receptive to fresh vistas such as the discovery I had recently with Giulini's Brahms, Serebrier's Glazunov and Haitink's Elgar.
When Robert Layton surveyed Scandinavian symphonies since Sibelius in Gramophone in the 1980s he had, as I recall, not a good word to say for Gösta Nystroem's Sinfonia del Mare. Then again he was pretty dismissive of another favourite work of mine, the Moeran Symphony; I hear a realisation of the fabled Second is in the works from those Angels of the neglected, Dutton! Probably this says more about me than about Mr Layton who has otherwise been a mentor of mine from afar.
Bis have championed Nystroem over a long period. Their catalogue sports:-
Sinfonia Shakespeariana CD-1082
Sinfonia Espressiva CD-782
The present two symphonies, each bearing a Latin title rather than a number, are works of the composer's maturity. The Breve, despite its title, still runs to 19:30 and is put across here with great élan. One can hear pre-echoes of the del Mare in some of the material he deploys. It compares favourably with the recording by Sixten Ehrling and the Gothenburg orchestra (Caprice CAP21332). The music rather defies the fatuous image I had been carrying around with me of something almost neo-classical. It has in fact a gravid symphonic momentum ... and is short. It is in every way a pathfinder for the more ambitious 1937 Sinfonia Espressvia and for the work that followed - not without struggle - in Christmas 1948. That work, the Sinfonia del Mare, is for me his master-stroke. It never fails to move me. Toweringly atmospheric, it speaks of the sea's murmuring miles and its crashing combers. I had imagined the Nordic seas when I first heard it but in fact it is a work almost certainly inspired by the Mediterranean though the accent is on mystery rather than the dazzling vistas of Capri and Ischia. Its two outer movements frame one in which a mezzo sings a short and very touching song also existing for piano and voice. The singing approaches theatrical drama and Luonnotar-style 'theatricals' yet is also at ease with quiet confiding, as between lovers. It owes somewhat to Sibelius without being really Sibelian. Some of the storm scenes are reminiscent of Shostakovich. At one point it seems to reference the great concluding bell-thrumming song of Falla's El amor brujo. The whole thing is violent, passionate, brooding and at time operatic. The sung part is no-holds-barred stuff - Puccini mated with the very quintessence of Scandinavian romantic-impressionism. The vehement sections are gutsy and riven. That orchestral piano acts like a goad and spurs. The melodic material is devastating - deeply moving.
Of the competing versions, I grew up with Stig Westerberg's LP on Swedish Society Discofil (SLT33207) now reissued blessedly on SCD 1015. It's a great recording made with Elisabeth Söderström. We should also treasure Svetlanov's version on Phono-Suecia. Less familiar is the mono Tor Mann on Dial from the 1950s and sadly never transferred to CD.
Both the Svetlanov and the present König are wondrously done and are in really good sound. König is a grand interpreter though and this recording and Nystroem's ardent and beatific music recently illuminated a longish car journey between the North-West and Brighton. Irresistible music making – neo-romantic music-making with a dramatic spine.
Neo-romantic music-making with a dramatic spine.