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Jonathan Woolf
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Josef Otto af SILLÉN (1859-1951)
Violin Concerto in E minor (1920s?) [33:39]
Symphony No. 3 in E minor (1937) [28:54]
Christian Bergqvist (violin)
Gävle Symphony Orchestra/Göran Nilson
rec. September 2001, Gävle Concert Hall, Sweden
STERLING CDS1044-2 [62:33]

If you imagine, as the notes suggest, a musical axis somewhere between Bruch and Wieniawski you’ll have the emotional tenor of Josef Otto af Sillén’s Violin Concerto about right. Add a dash of Tchaikovsky and a serving of salon and you’ll be even closer. The erstwhile managing director of an insurance company, as well as a military man, he also pursued a parallel musical career.

His Violin Concerto was dedicated to his daughter Greta, a student of Leopold Auer, but she never performed it and in fact the work lay unperformed until this recording. Its date of composition seems to be in some doubt, though conjecturally one could say the early 1920s. It’s robust enough though thematically lacks real memorability and the solo line often seems to skim the surface of the music. The elegant but somewhat salonesque slow movement is indicative of a lack of passionate conviction to the music-making. Though it’s certainly amiable enough and the finale has a relaxed feel with a lengthy cadenza, there’s a strange feeling of uninvolved lassitude for much of the time. Nothing quite grips. The slight backward placing of soloist Christian Bergqvist doesn’t help but he plays communicatively. The problem is inherent in the composition, not the performance.

First performed in 1937 the Symphony No.3 is another smoothly organised but ultimately non-committal affair. The ceremonial introduction, cast in solid sonata form, leads to a pleasantly lyric Andante which, despite lightly burnished wind solos, never reaches (or seeks, one feels) any great expressive depth. Imagine Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and, again, you’ll be near the mark. The Allegretto’s pastoral dance is followed by a furrow-browed and rather serious finale. This late-romantic symphony is unaffected, robust, spirited, clean-limbed and wholesome. It’s not troubled, introspective, expressive or deep.

It’s certainly well played even if opportunities for ardent advocacy are in short supply in a work that so rigorously avoids sentiment. Fine notes do the best they can, supporting the enterprise with excellently sourced biographical information. Even so I’d place this disc quite low on the ‘must have’ Sterling wants list.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: David Barker



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