Jakob Adolf HÄGG (1850-1928)
American Festival Music (1903) [7:30]
Concert Overture No. 1 in D major, op. 28 (1870) [6:02]
Concert Overture No. 2 in C minor, op. 26 (1871) [7:37]
Symphony in E flat major Nordic, op. 2 (1871/1899) [19:40]
Gävleborg Symphony Orchestra/Göran Nilson (symphony), Mats Liljefors (others)
rec. 1981, Orkestersalen, Gävle (symphony); 1996, Ljusgården I Polhemsskolan, Gävle (others), Sweden
STERLING CDS1007-2 [40:47]

I didn’t think I’d heard any music by Jakob Hägg before this, but a quick search found that I had: two miniatures for cello and piano on a Hyperion recording that I reviewed last year. I even picked out one of his works for special mention, describing it as “rapturous”. Had I done this search before listening to this reissue, I may not have been quite so surprised at the quality of the music.

According to the notes, Hägg was considered a potential Swedish equivalent to Grieg; a prodigy accepted into the Stockholm Conservatory at the age of fourteen. He won the Jenny Lind Scholarship in 1870, and used it to travel to Copenhagen, where he befriended Hans Christian Andersen and studied with Niels Gade, who regarded Hägg as his favourite pupil. He continued his studies in Germany, but by the middle of the decade, he was displaying signs of mental illness. In 1880, he was admitted to an institution for the mentally ill – his care was paid for by the royal family – and not discharged until 1895. By this time, his youthful promise was long gone, and he spent his remaining years in isolation.

Surprisingly, my favourite work on the disc, the American Festival Music, is from the time after he was released. Certainly, it is rather old-fashioned for its time, but for all that, it is splendidly stirring. It is a set of variations on the American song of liberty, Hail Columbia, which Hägg may have become aware of through his brother who lived in the USA for an extended period.

The two Concert Overtures were written at the height of his promise, one in Stockholm, and the other in Copenhagen. They too are fine works, with energy and melody bursting out of them, with a Mendelssohnian feel. The weakest work for me is the Symphony, begun as a sonata for four hands while studying with Gade, and completed in his isolation. It is described in the notes as Nordic in mood, but perhaps you need to be Nordic to pick that up.

Sound quality is nothing to write home about, and in fact, the symphony, recorded 15 years before the others, is cleaner and better defined, though still not great. That the music immediately grabbed my attention suggests that the performances are very good. The booklet notes are thorough and readable, both in biographical and musicological terms.

I can’t finish without having a grumble about the niggardly running time. Yes, this is a re-issue, so the fault lies with the original recording, or to be more accurate, the second stage of it from 1996. The symphony formed part of an LP back in 1981, but the other works were recorded well into the CD era, so there really isn’t much excuse for not adding more to the recording schedule. Hägg did after all write four symphonies; surely one more of those could have been squeezed in.

David Barker

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