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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

Three Scandinavian Symphonies

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This week’s Tuesday Blog presents a trio of symphonies by a pair of Scandinavian composers – one well-known, the other less.

Let’s start with the better known of the two composers. Jean Sibelius wrote seven symphonies; and his Third Symphony represents a turning point in Sibelius's symphonic output. His First and Second symphonies are grandiose Romantic and patriotic works. The Third, however, shows a distinct, almost Classical desire to contain the largest amount of musical material in the fewest possible melodic figures, harmonies, and durations. It is a good-natured, triumphal, and deceptively simple-sounding piece which hardly foreshadows the more austere complexity of his later symphonies

The Sibelius is flanked by a pair of symphonies by the early-romantic Swedish composer Franz Berwald. Berwald came from a family with four generations of musicians; his father, a violinist in the Stockholm Royal Opera Orchestra, taught Franz the violin from an early age; and in 1812, Berwald started playing the violin in the court orchestra and the opera, receiving lessons from Edouard du Puy, and also started composing:a violin concerto (not well-received at its premiere), some symphonies, operas never staged, even a Piano Concerto that was premiered nearly 40 years after his death by his grand-daughter in a student recital! Berwald's music was not recognised favourably in Sweden during his lifetime, even drawing hostile newspaper reviews, but fared a little better in Germany and Austria.

In 1911, Carl Nielsen wrote of Berwald, "Neither the media, money nor power can damage or benefit good Art. It will always find some simple, decent artists who forge ahead and produce and stand up for their works. In Sweden, you have the finest example of this: Berwald."

Ten years after Berwald's death, his Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major, "Naïve", was premiered ; this gap between composition and first performance was relatively short, however, compared to what befell the Symphony No. 2 in D major, "Capricieuse" and Symphony No. 3 in C major, "Singulière". Those two pieces were not premiered until 1914 and 1905, respectively.

Igor Markevitch recorded Berwald’s symphonies no 3 and 4 (along with a past share, Schubert’s 4th Symphony) with the Berlin Philharmonic in the mid-1950’s. You wouldn’t think of him in association with the music of Berwald, particularly in 1955, and particularly with the Berlin Philharmonic, but such was Markevitch’s gift that he could impose his will on just about any orchestra, in any music, and achieve stunning results. He simply has the Berlin Philharmonic playing its heart out, and the period mono sonics are extremely bold and vivid.

The Sibelius symphony I am sharing today was part of the first domestically available “complete” set of Sibelius symphonies in the UK. The project was handed to the then ex-pat conductor and composer Anthony Collins (1893-1963) who had been making a conducting and composition (film) career for himself in California. In the clean-limbed Third Symphony Collins puts across the controlled icy fever of the string writing and does so with great fervour.

Happy Listening!

Franz BERWALD (1796-1868)
Symphony no. 3 in C Major, "Sinfonie Singulière" (1845)
Symphony no. 4 in E flat Major, "Sinfonie Naïve" (1845)
Berliner Philharmoniker
Igor Markevitch, conducting
(Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin, Dec 1955)
(Downloaded from LiberMusica)

Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony no 3 in C major, op. 52
London Symphony Orchestra
Anthony Collins, conducting
(Kingsway Hall, London, May 1954)
(Downloaded from Public Domain Classic)

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