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Dag WIRÉN (1905-1986)
Symphony No 3, Op.20 (1943-44) [24.43]
Serenade, Op.11 (1937) [15.28]
Divertimento, Op.29 (1953-57) [11.57]
Sinfonietta, Op.7a (1933-34, revised 1939) [17.41]
Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Rumon Gamba
rec. 2017, Eldborg, Harpa, Reykjavik

Dag Wirén is one of those Scandinavian composers whose reputation at the time of their deaths rested almost entirely on a single work, like others such as Alfvén and Halvorsen. Although these writers produced a substantial portfolio of other pieces, many of which had received recordings by Scandinavian orchestras on labels with limited international circulation, their fame derived from one piece, which effectively consigned all their other writings to the shadows. Mind you, these ‘one-hit wonders’ fared better than many of their contemporaries whose music never permeated far outside Scandinavia at all, and it is only in recent years – thanks to the efforts of Scandinavian labels such as BIS as well as international enterprises such as Chandos – that their music has begun to reach the wider public. For many years Wirén was famous (if he was remembered at all) for one movement, the March from his Serenade, which was used by the BBC as the signature tune for their arts programme Monitor and which received a goodly number of recordings over the years. Even today, Archiv lists 33 discs featuring Wirén’s music as currently available, but nearly half of those entries are of that self-same Serenade, with the other 32 works receiving no more than three recordings apiece.

The booklet notes for this release by Stig Jacobsson seek to explain the neglect of Wirén’s other music both by his self-acknowledged “parsimonious and harsh thematic ethos” (he complained that he “got so few thematic ideas that he had to be very economical and use them carefully”) and to an extent his conscious avoidance of the modernism of his day, preferring a “lighter and more entertaining music.” His mature compositional output was small, and he avoided music with any programmatic suggestion, writing, for example, very few vocal pieces. There is a sort of neo-classical feel to much of the material here, although the severity of many of his contemporaries writing in that idiom is never present in this immediately likeable and approachable music. It is true that, apart from the well-known theme in the aforementioned movement from the Serenade, the style of his writing is not particularly tuneful – there is nothing here as appealing as Alfvén’s Swedish Rhapsody or Halvorsen’s Entry March, for example – the orchestration is lively and accomplished, and there is plenty of textural light and shade. Rumon Gamba, in a personal note included in the booklet, explains the manner in which he came to know and appreciate Wirén’s music over a period of years; and we should be grateful that he has seen fit to share his discoveries with us.

It is good too to hear the famous Serenade with a full body of orchestral strings, rather than the chamber ensembles which have usually given us recordings of the March before now. Like many composers of the early twentieth century, Wirén clearly relished the sound of symphonic forces, and composed with that sound in mind – the same is true of course of Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, Elgar and a multitude of those who have written for “string orchestra”. The booklet also lays emphasis on the parodistic nature of the March – “Wirén,” we are told, “found military marching music ridiculous” – which its many listeners may well fail to appreciate through sheer familiarity, despite its touches of modern harmony and occasional darker undertones. The title of the Divertimento might lead us to expect similarly humorous music, but again despite playful moments there is much evidence of deeper and indeed more unpredictable elements. The Sinfonietta was derived from Wirén’s original drafts for a Second Symphony (he later wrote an entirely new work with that title) and, as the earliest piece on this disc, the influences of other neo-classical composers are more immediately apparent – parallels with Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, rather than the more astringent Stravinsky.

The disc opens with the most substantial of Wirén’s orchestral scores we are given here in the shape of his Third Symphony, which has a rather unusual structure where the first two movements are linked together and the whole three movements form a unit with a large-scale sonata form. Parallels with Sibelius’s one-movement Seventh Symphony spring to mind here, and indeed one can detect a certain Sibelian cast to the music as a whole which gives this work the most obviously Scandinavian feel of any of the pieces on this disc. The use of themes which metamorphose from one movement to the next also draws comparisons with the procedures of Nielsen. This is the only one of Wirén’s symphonies that currently has any competition in the catalogues, since there is an alternative version conducted by Thomas Dausgaard on the CPO label issued in 2000 which forms part of a complete set of the extant symphonies (the First exists only in the form of a sketch). The two discs which constitute that cycle were enthusiastically received by the critics at the time of their original release, but it is useful and welcome to have an alternative version of the Third on a CD, which might well act as a sampler of the composer’s orchestral output and encourage listeners to explore further. (There was another reading of the symphony issued by the Sami Sinfonietta, also containing the Sinfonietta, issued in 2002 but which is no longer shown by Archiv as currently available – copies on Amazon, presumably second-hand, begin at £37.95 at the time of writing.)

The recorded sound is excellent and clear. Chandos’ cover illustrations for their issues of obscure Scandinavian music are not always happily chosen, and the photograph here of a Swedish barn suggests a homespun rustic simplicity which does not accord well with the closely argued nature of some of the music on this disc. But the booklet notes, complete with translations into German and French, are excellent and the CD will form a valuable introduction for many listeners into the world of a composer who surely deserves to be better known.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Michael Wilkinson



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