Ruben LILJEFORS (1871-1936)
Piano Concerto in F minor, op. 5 (1899) [23:20]
Symphony in E flat major, op. 14 (1906) [30:30]
Irène Mannheimer (piano)
Gävleborg Symphony Orchestra/Mats Liljefors
rec. May/June 1995, Concert Hall, Royal Swedish Academy of Music, Stockholm
STERLING CDS1017-2 [53:50]

Recently, I reviewed a Sterling recording of a concerto and symphony by the little-known Swedish composer, Josef Sillén, and concluded that the music, while pleasant enough, was very derivative (review). Here we have another such composer, and music that certainly bears resemblance to better known works. However, I feel that this is a better proposition.

Some biographical information to begin with. Liljefors was born in Uppsala into an artistic family; his older brother Bruno became a well-known painter specialising in nature subjects. Ruben studied in Sweden, graduating in Stockholm as an organist, and then moved to Germany to work with Salomon Jadassohn, Felix Draeseke and Max Reger. He spent much of his conducting career in Sweden working with choirs, but he did help establish the orchestra in Gävle, serving as its artistic director for twenty years, until deafness made it impossible to continue.

The spirit of Grieg underlies the concerto, especially its first two movements. What was odd is that I heard echoes of Rachmaninov in the final movement, but this seems unlikely as the concerto was written before his music was likely to have made it beyond the Russian borders. It is suggested that this is a concerto obviously written by a pianist, but it didn’t strike me as especially virtuosic; in fact, I found the orchestral contributions to be more interesting than the piano part. The booklet quotes Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, composer and critic, who wrote that the concerto was a “deeply serious-minded imitation of the deeply serious”. That is a little unfair, as it does have its moments.

The symphony was premiered together with the Third Symphony of Hugo Alfvén, which received much of the attention; it isn’t difficult to see why. While the two are almost exact contemporaries, Alfvén’s reputation was already established, and he had already honed his symphonic skills. His would have stood out as a much more accomplished work, and the light-hearted, sunny mood of the Liljefors would have made it seem even less substantial. It is not as obviously influenced by others as the concerto. It certainly doesn’t sound like Brahms, Mahler or Wagner; the booklet mentions Svendsen. It has a freshness that is enjoyable, though I doubt you will leave it whistling any of the melodies.

The performances are perfectly adequate, but are not helped by a somewhat recessed and undefined sound. It is disappointing that one other piece, for example one of his overtures, wasn’t included in the recording session to fill out the CD rather better. The notes spend the majority of the page and a half on biographical information, which is appreciated, but very little on the music itself. For your information, the conductor is the composer’s grandson.

Apparently, Liljefors’ conducting career meant that he had little time for composing, which is a shame as these two works do show a degree of promise, especially the symphony.

David Barker

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