Swedish Romantic Violin Concertos (Niklas Willen/ Swedish Chamber Orchestra/ Tobias Ringborg) (Naxos: 8.554287)
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Franz Berwald is regarded as the most gifted musician of the nineteenthcentury in Sweden and yet his work was little understood by his contemporaries.
This was partly because symphonies, the genre in which he excelled, were littleappreciated. Of the four he wrote in the 1840s, the Symphonie serieuse wasthe only one to be performed - once, badly rehearsed and with a reducedorchestra. Thus the only opportunity for audiences to hear his mastery waslost.
As early as 1829 Berwald had left the country and worked for twelveyears in Berlin, not with music, but in one of several other professions he hadto follow to support himself. This was physiotherapy, which he practised withsignificant success. He moved to Vienna in 1841, where an interest was taken inhis music again. He began to compose once more, producing two symphonies, fourorchestral fantasies and the opera Estrella de Soria. Some of the workswere performed immediately. The reception in this cosmopolitan city was morepositive than anything he had experienced before.
A year later Berwald returned to Sweden, perhaps in the hope that themusical climate had changed during his thirteen-year absence. It transpiredthat this was not the case, and Sweden seemed provincial and old-?¡fashioned tohim. The few compositions he did manage to have performed met with littlesuccess. Some works were deemed to be uninteresting, others the works of aneccentric outsider.
Another period abroad, begun in 1846, brought results in France, Germanyand Austria. Berwald was warmly received in Vienna and appeared together withJenny Lind. In Salzburg he was made an honorary member of the Mozarteum, a rarehonour for a Swede.
Economic difficulties forced Berwald to return to Sweden for good in1849. For seven years he managed a glassworks in Angermanland in NorthernSweden. His failure to gain an audience for his larger works caused him toconcentrate almost completely on chamber music. The only exception to this wasthe opera Drottningen av Golconda ('The Queen of Golconda'), which hadto wait 100 years for its first staged performance.
The Violin Concerto is one of Berwald's youthful works, writtenwhen he was 24 He had been playing the instrument since childhood, taught byhis father who played in the Royal Opera Orchestra in Stockhohn Something of achild prodigy, he was perfon11ing from the age of nine. He continued hisstudies with Edouard Dupuy, who had moved to Sweden from France, and whose ViolinConcerto Berwald performed at the age of foutteen Dupuy employed him twoyears later in the opera orchestra, where he remained, on and off, until 1828.
It was in his twenties that Berwald began to compose in earnest. Heappears not to have had any formal training, but learnt his craft by studyingscores by Gluck, Mozart, Cherubini, Beethoven and others. His work at the operaand contact with accomplished colleagues served to make him familiar with allinstruments and with an orchestra's way of working. In 1817 he wrote a double concertofor himself and his brother August, two years his junior. A string quartetfollowed soon after, as well as a Quartet for piano and winds and the ViolinConcerto.
The Violin Concerto is exceptional in several ways. Its key of Cminor is unusual and not especially practical for the soloist and severaltechnical difficulties are uncharacteristic of Swedish music of the time. Thesewere allegedly written by Berwald for his boastful cousin Johan Fredrik, whoclaimed that he could master anything. However it was Berwald's brother Augustwho gave the work its first performance in 1821. On the same occasion asymphony was performed, of which a large part of the first movement is all thatsurvives.
The press were not enthusiastic. The Concerto was deemed to betoo unwieldy and the soloist to lack any feeling for melody - except in thecentral movement, in which the accompaniment was so ridiculous that somemembers of the audience burst out laughing. The music was soon forgotten andthe Concerto remained unplayed for almost ninety years (the symphonicfragment for twice as long). It was not until 1909 that it was played again bythe French-German violinist Henri Marteau, who then toured with it throughoutEurope. In Sweden he actively contributed to the Berwald revival that had beenstarted by Tor Aulin and Wilhelm Stenhamrnar.
Stenhammar too ranks as one of the leading figures in Swedish music,with a small but particularly fine body of work. His mature works can becharacterized as aristocratically measured, sometimes wilful, rich in feelingbut without unbridled sentimentality or play for effect. Among his sources ofinspiration were Bruckner and even Sibelius.
Few genres were unfamiliar to Stenhamrnar. His ceuvre encompassestwo symphonies, a large-scale orchestral serenade, two piano concertos, operas,music for the theatre, cantatas, songs, chamber music and works for piano. Inhis six string quartets a development can be traced from reminiscences ofBeethoven to an austere polyphony which looks forward to the newer currentsfrom between the wars.
Stenhammar's small creative output can be partly explained by hisextensive activities as a practising musician. Ten years as a conductor inStockholm were followed by fifteen years as Principal Conductor of the GothenburgSymphony Orchestra. Today internationally renowned, the orchestra enjoyed itsfirst golden age under Stenhammar. In addition Stenhammar was one of theleading pianists in Scandinavia.
The violin romance as a genre has a long history. Two of the earliestare by Beethoven from 1802-3, but there were even earlier examples. Theoriginal model can be traced back to the central movements of French concertosjust after 1750. When the title was used towards the end of the nineteenthcentury, people rather had in mind the central section of Bruch's FirstViolin Concerto (1868). Its broad singing cantilena and use of theinstrument's lower register inspired many. Some of the first ones were by Dvořakand Svendsen from 1873 and 1881 respectively. Less well known but of highquality are two romances by Max Reger (1900). In Scandinavia one by ChristianSinding and one by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger enjoyed a certain popularity, butafter the first world war interest in this genre waned.
Stenhammar's contribution to the genre dates from 1910. Although he wasonly able to devote himself to his own music during the summer, this was ahighly creative period. His Quartet No. 4 was completed in 1909,with No. 5 a year later. The following year he began work on his SecondSymphony and the Serenade, all of which are regarded as hismasterpieces.
The Romances were first performed in 1911 by Tor Aulin and theGothenburg Symphony Orchestra, with the composer conducting. Marked sentimental,this has nothing to do with the current meaning of the word, being used inthose days to mean simply "with feeling".
Tor Aulin was another who played a leading part in Swedish music life atthe turn of the century. He led the Royal Opera Orchestra in Stockholm and wasalso first violinist in the string quartet he founded in 1887 and led for over25 years. It was the first established ensemble of its kind in Sweden, and itplayed an important role in exposing many to performances of a very highstandard. Through the many long tours, often with Stenhammar at the piano