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Dag WIRÉN (1905-1986)
Symphony No.3, Op. 20 (1943-1944) [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. Eldborg, Harpa, Reykjavík, Iceland, 2017

This is a most welcome issue, and a fine introduction to the orchestral music of Dag Wirén, a composer best known for his delightful Serenade for Strings, which receives an interesting – but perhaps not definitive - performance here.

Wirén is one of those composers, who has slipped rather below the radar, especially outside Sweden. He is known in Sweden as one of the ‘Composers of the Thirties’, a group that would include Erland von Koch (1910-2009) and Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986). Like them he had a neo-classical outlook, but unlike some of his older contemporaries, such as Atterberg or Peterson-Berger, deliberately avoided any reference to Swedish folklore. He studied in Paris with Leonid Sabaneyev, the Russian exile, and lived there for three years. On his return to Sweden, he worked as composer, conductor, pianist and organist, and, like Peterson-Berger, also as a music critic, writing for Svenska Morgonbladet, where he gained a reputation for severe but fair criticism (Peterson-Berger, who earlier wrote for Dagens Nyheter, could be unfair and indeed quite savage).

Much of his music, while appealing, is serious and introspective. Wirén disliked vocal music and wrote little. The Sinfonietta, recorded here, is unusually playful, even witty. The music was taken from an aborted Second Symphony and the period of composition coincided with his Paris sojourn, when he was learning also about the music of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Les Six. Their influence is audible, but the music is distinctively Wirén. Rumon Gamba and his forces give us a sympathetic performance – and a very enjoyable one.

The Symphony No. 3 (of five) is an interesting piece, composed in wartime. It was written at the same time as some film and other incidental music. The piece is neoclassical, with elements of sonata form but also interesting metamorphosis of themes. It is a stern work, beginning quietly (as would his next symphony), in three movements, with a generally taut, even laconic, style, with some notable writing for woodwinds and insistent rhythm. Here as elsewhere Gamba is a shade deliberate. Thomas Dausgaard’s cpo recording (coupled with Symphony No.2 – not the aborted one, but a new work from 1939) is a couple of minutes swifter, but I have no preference between them – each performance has its own insights.

The Divertimento is a serious piece, despite the title, in four movements. The writing is characteristic Wirén, with sensitive use of percussion and rhythm: one can hear the reasons why he was in so much demand as a film and theatre composer - even at his toughest, the music can readily be followed.

My one area of slight doubt is the performance of the well-known Serenade. Perhaps I am too familiar with earlier recordings. My first introduction was many years ago with Neville Marriner’s quicksilver performance with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and I fell in love with it again in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 1994 BIS recording. To me, Gamba lacks a little of the carefree quality of those recordings, though others might argue that his greater deliberation, especially in excellent Chandos sound, allows much valuable detail to emerge. His control of dynamics is masterly. Any recording which brings to our attention this lovely music is a reason to be grateful.

This is most worthwhile. More, please!

Michael Wilkinson

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