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Natanael BERG (1879-1957)
Suite from ‘Birgitta’ [18:20]
Piano Concerto in C sharp-minor [34:10]
Symphony No.4 ‘Pezzo sinfonico’ [22:45]
Jacob Moskopvicz (piano)
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Per Borin (suite)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Stig Westerberg (concerto); Goran W. Nilson (symphony)
rec. 1976-91, Swedish Radio Studio
STERLING CDS1019-2 [75:15]

There are not many recordings of Natanael Berg’s music, and the efforts of CPO must be acknowledged together with those of Sterling in this CD.

Briefly, Berg trained in veterinary medicine and began learning music by teaching himself. He later studied at the Stockholm Conservatory as the pupil of Johan Lindegren. Until 1939, he served as a veterinarian in the Swedish Army and afterwards he became a freelance composer. His output included five operas, three ballets, five symphonies as well as several symphonic poems, a piano concerto, a violin concerto, a serenade for violin and orchestra, a piano quintet, ballades, songs, and pieces for piano.

The disc under review contains performances collected over the past forty-four years, the most recent being nearly thirty years old. These dates do not, however, much impact upon the recorded quality, which is quite uniform and pleasing, without demonstrating the ultimate in hi-fidelity.

His opera Birgitta dates from 1942, and the suite from it gives an immediate taste of his compositional style – clearly a first-rate orchestrator following in the footsteps of Wagner and Richard Strauss. On this showing, he was not a great melodist, but his music is pleasant to hear and reaches stirring climaxes, and doubtless a few repeated hearings will make it stick in the memory. The one criticism that I have is the omission of the last section of the suite which requires a chorus and brings the piece to a “magnificent conclusion” (booklet). This omission may not be anything to do with Sterling, but rather the authorities around the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic.

Next up is his sole Piano Concerto from 1931, three years before Rachmaninov produced his Paganini Rhapsody, which sounds much more ‘modern’ than Berg’s effort, despite the ultra-romantic melody of the eighteenth variation. In fact, as the booklet note confirms, the concerto was regarded by critics as being more of a free-flowing rhapsodic fantasy. This is certainly the impression that I have acquired, particularly with regard to the first movement, although the booklet note insists that there are many unifying details and that the piece has a key structure that has been thought out in great detail. It begins with an imposing orchestral outpouring, with slightly discordant brass above tremolo strings. The piano enters and plays alone establishing the long, flowing melody. As the movement continues, the content alternates between calm meditation and urgent rhythms. The changes can be sudden and unexpected, giving the impression of a series of unrelated sections, strung together almost at random; however, it is never boring - quite the reverse in fact, with the soloist given plenty to do, in the heroic style of a romantic concerto. The movement, at fifteen minutes, is almost as long as the remaining movements put together.

The second movement, andante quasi lento, begins with the impression that the piano is imitating the sound of bells alongside songful accompaniment of clarinet and flute, and it becomes quite intense as the strings join in, although I’m not sure that the melody is strong enough to merit such treatment – I have listened to it three or four times and it doesn’t stick in my mind. A similar comment applies to the third movement – andante con moto, where the ‘motion’ is intermittent, and the andante is pleasant but not quite pleasant enough to make one want to listen to it again.

The last movement – allegro, begins with the piano full-tilt with the orchestra taking over for a very short march-like section. The piano has a lengthy solo section which might be regarded as a cadenza, occasionally and briefly accompanied. Alas, it contains little that is truly memorable, though it is certainly virtuosic. It is a pity that the striking opening of the first movement is not reproduced later.

The CD concludes with the 23-minute Fourth Symphony, ‘Pezzo sinfonico’ (symphonic piece) of 1918, which became Berg’s most frequently performed work. The movements alternate between mild, lyrical warmth and whirling rhythmic vitality. ‘Elegance’ is a word that springs to mind, together with ‘relaxed’ and ‘melodic’, and for the later, Berg manages to produce grateful melodies which suggests that their absence in parts of the concerto was intentional. The titles of the movements indicate the musical content – ‘Dreaming’, ‘Dancing Fairies’, ‘Romance’ and ‘Vivacious Life’ - and with these the symphony almost enters the realm of light music.

All the performances are excellent, and, as mentioned, the recordings are fine, so it gives me pleasure to bring this unusual CD to your attention.

Jim Westhead

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