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Franz BERWALD (1796-1868) The Battle of Leipzig (1828) [18.46]
Concerto for two violins and orchestra (1817) [12.52] The Queen of Golconda (1864) Overture and orchestral extracts [17.25]
Theme and Variations for violin and orchestra (1816) [13.18] Estrella de Soria (1841-1848) Overture and Polonaise [11.24]
Malmö Opera Orchestra/Willén
rec. Rosenbergsalen, Malmö Music High School, Sweden, 11-14 June 2002 STERLING CDS1051-2 [75.17]
Franz Berwald deserved far more attention than he got in his lifetime. He was forced to take all sorts of unlikely jobs, including managing a glassworks, to support himself when music alone had failed to do so. Even now, when he is recognised as Sweden’s first important symphonist, his music hardly gets a lot of attention. In the case of his four symphonies this is most unjust. They have a unique voice and should be heard by all music-lovers. I still treasure my Heliodor LP recording of two of them made by no less an orchestra than the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Igor Markevitch in 1956 (now appropriately on DG Originals CD 4577052). This LP was welcomed by EMG's Monthly Letter in January 1957 with the words, "At last, some of Franz Berwald's music ... he was the greatest of Swedish composers ... who developed for himself a style of startling originality." Quite so.
With the exception of the two overtures and the Polonaise from Estrella de Soria, all these recordings are world premieres. The Polonaise is labelled such but this is a mistake: at least one other recording exists from the 1970s (approx) on Nonesuch LP H-71218. Swedish CD company Sterling can be proud of themselves for providing a chance to hear more music by this remarkably original Swede. There are plenty of recordings of his four symphonies and of his chamber music. It has to be admitted that in his symphonies we find the most unique voice but all of the present pieces have something to offer. The Battle of Leipzig and the two works for violin(s) and orchestra are all early, and to my ears they sound less characteristic, but if one considers what else was being written at the same time they are still impressively different.
The ‘musical painting’ The Battle of Leipzig is given pride of place on the CD cover. As the very full notes make clear, musical depictions of battles were popular at the time, the most famous being Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory of 1813. Berwald’s work sounds rather cheerier than Beethoven’s. To begin with his style is much more that of Weber and possibly Schubert. His marching armies are not that different but the celebrations of victory don’t have the martial edge of Beethoven’s victory fugal symphony. Unexpectedly, both composers use ‘God Save the Queen’. In Beethoven’s case because the victory is Wellington’s, in Berwald's because the Swedish national anthem uses the same tune! It would be interesting to know whether Berwald annotated cannon and musket shots like Beethoven. The latter can be heard on Dorati’s famous Mercury recording, but here the Malmö orchestra has to make do with orchestral effects alone. All in all this early tone poem, or ‘musical painting’ is an enjoyable addition to the catalogue. Perhaps some daring British orchestra would care to programme it in their concert season during the 150th anniversary of Berwald's death in 2018.
The remainder of the disc is more conventional in intent. Both violin works are enjoyable but I feel the short concerto for two violins is the more stimulating. The extracts from two of Berwald’s unsuccessful attempts at opera display the more mature composer and possibly hint at why he failed to get the performances he so deserved. His music is lively and melodic but does not rise to dramatic impact. Of course short of recordings of the whole of Drottningen av Golconda and of Estrella de Soria we are left to guess how true this is. What Sterling and the Malmö Opera Orchestra have done is make more of this intriguing composer’s music available for us to enjoy. Since the performances are full of vitality and the recordings are clean and clear the CD can be purchased with confidence. To end, I must remind newcomers again; Berwald's symphonies, especially the Sinfonie Singulière and the Symphony in E flat, are very significant contributions to the symphonic repertoire. Buy these as well, there are plenty of good performances to choose from including the historic one mentioned above. Dave Billinge