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Franz BERWALD (1796-1868)
Reminiscence of the Norwegian Mountains (1842) [9:24]
Konzertstück for Bassoon and Orchestra (1828) [11:50]*
Wettlauf (1842) [8:45]
Ernste und heitere Grillen: Fantasiestück for Orchestra (1842) [8:44]
Drottningen av Golconda: Overture (1864) [7:55]
Elfenspiel (1841) [8:46]
*Patrick Håkansson (bassoon)
Gävle Symphony Orchestra/Petri Sakari
rec. Gävle Concert Hall, September 2000
NAXOS 8.555370 [55:24]

Franz Berwald is "the outstanding Swedish composer of the 19th century", according to the Naxos blurb, which perhaps damns him with faint praise: what other Swedish composers of the period do we know? His music reminds me of Berlioz. It doesn't "sound French" in any way - the spacious, airy textures at the start of the Reminiscence of the Norwegian Mountains could only be Scandinavian. Nor does Berwald emulate the French composer's idiosyncratic harmonic patterns, or his peculiar (in both senses) voicings of them. Both composers do however use other techniques to produce a similar edgy, mercurial quality.
There's the carefully timed event that disrupts established expectations. As the Reminiscence, for example, hurtles in tutti towards a rousing conclusion, the motion abruptly comes to a stop on a [chord?], picking up with a quiet reprise of the spacious introductory material, which rounds off the piece. Earlier in the Reminiscence, Berwald displays a Berlioz-ish penchant for displaced metrical stresses, which gives the faster writing an unstable, aesthetically nervous quality.
Unfortunately, that last characteristic of Berwald-as-Berlioz is not ideally served. The Gävle Symphony - yet another orchestra I'd not known before - is a respectable ensemble, and under Petri Sakari they play alertly and with style. That said, all the off-beat scurrying can leave the players nervous (not aesthetically) and unsettled. The running woodwind figures in the introduction to Wettlauf sound particularly insecure, never quite dovetailing with the strings. The notes call this an "Etude for String Orchestra", but full wind and brass sections are distinctly audible. A similar insecurity crops up in Ernste und heitere Griffen, though, with its clearer rhythmic framework, it comes off better. Even the fugue in Elfenspiel, with its irregular scansion, begins skittishly, though Ulf Björlin's fuller-sounding EMI account is no better in this respect.
The best performances here, oddly, come in those scores less characteristic of the composer. In the Konzertstück for bassoon, Berwald introduces the soloist with another surprise, when what had promised to be a lengthy opening ritornello is resolved, and effectively hijacked, by a single bassoon note in the upper-midrange. The score is a real find: with its Classical contours and predominantly lyrical solo writing, it's a quirky single-movement counterpart to Weber's earlier concerto. Patrick Håkansson plays the lyrical phrases with supple expression, pliant tone, taking the occasional virtuoso outburst in his stride.
I've already cited the Reminiscence, the main section of which, a well-organized sonata-allegro that builds steadily, is bracketed by the more expansive music described earlier. The Drottningen av Golconda overture is a surprisingly playful curtain-raiser for a grand opera; it's colourful, though some of the short-winded woodwind figures threaten to impede the momentum in the home stretch.
At Naxos prices, this is still attractive for the Reminiscence and, especially, for the Konzertstück. The other performances are flavourful, and will serve as stopgaps.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.