PETERSON-BERGER: Symphony No. 5 in B minor "Solitudes." Violin Concerto in F sharp minor
Ulf Wallin, violinist; Norrköping Symphony Orch/Michail Jurowski, cond.
cpo 999984 (F) (DDD) TT: 62:48

NIELSEN: Aladdin Suite, Op. 34. Cupid and the Poet, Op. 54. Saga-Dream, Op. 39. Helios Overture, Op. 17. Maskarade (Overture/Prelude to Act III). Pan and Syrinx, Op. 49.
South Jutland Symphony Orch/Niklás Willén, cond.
NAXOS 8.557164 (B) (DDD) TT: 67:46

cpo is so conscientious about releasing carefully prepared and performed releases of Scandinavian music – expertly recorded in the bargain, irrespective of venue – that one feels like Elm Street Freddy when something seems artistically negligible. In the case of Wilhelm Peterson-Berger’s Fifth (and final) Symphony (1932-33) and Violin Concerto (which took him 16 years to compose, 1912-28), technique is solidly Germanic, as befits studies at Dresden and later on a three-year tenure teaching at that city’s Music Institute. His gods were Grieg and Wagner, although the latter figured very little in P-B’s music, as he came to be known when he returned to Sweden in 1895 as new music critic of Stockholm’s all-powerful Dagens Nyheter – a post he occupied for the next 35 years. The music of his contemporaries (including Sibelius, Alfven, Stenhammer and Nielsen) displeased P-B. His animus was sincere but waspishly phrased – in effect Stockholm’s equivalent of Eduard Hanslick in Vienna or Philip Hale in Boston. His enemies grew in number, and when he retired from criticism and moved to the island of Frösö, reviews by his former colleagues were sometimes as nettlesome as his own. His reputation as a composer rests mainly on folk-type songs, frequently performed in Scandinavia even today.

The Fifth Symphony he subtitled “Solitude,” reflecting both his relief from the duties of daily newspaper criticism and loneliness. Its four movements last a tolerable 28+ minutes, with a lyrical first movement, a jollier scherzo with two trios whose motifs he called “Laughter” and “Tomfoolery,” a reflective (and attractive) slow movement in his solitude mode, and a tarantella finale that eventually calms down and ends peacefully with bells. The Violin Concerto, however, is a longer and overall boring work despite Ulf Wallin’s fine solo performance; its three movements simply go on too long – more than 34 minutes --with materials too thin to bear the weight of such length and working-over. It never offends but is simply narcotic. That said, everything on cpo’s disc is immaculately played by the 87 musicians of Norrköping’s SO, founded in 1912 some 170 kms southwest of Stockholm. (Principal conductors have included Herbert Blomstedt and Franz Welser-Möst, with Leif Segerstam and Daniel Harding among the principal guests). Michail Jurowski, permanent guest of the Berlin Radio SO and Komische Oper, conducts with the care evident in his other work on discs.

The Nielsen disc from Naxos promised more than we get from a provincial orchestra with a basically miscast conductor, recorded in a boomy hall. Sadly, the trove of Nielsen recordings beginning with Decca’s Symphony No. 5 in the mono-LP era through the ‘80s into the ’90s has been decimated if not altogether wiped out. One can still get vivacious performances of the seven-movement Aladdin Suite here without chorus in two of the movements but packaged with other materials; ditto Saga-Dream, the Helios Overture, the tone-poem Pan and Syrinx, and the ebillient Maskarade Overture (although the second act Prelude is less common today). The one rarity nowhere else available is Nielsen’s last orchestral work, the 5-1/2 minute Cupid and the Poet, composed in 1930, a year before his death. But Willén is a clunky conductor here of an orchestra shared by Denmark’s South Jutland and Germany’s South Schleswig, whose monochromatic sound matches the man on the podium. Too bad: we need this repertory in up-to-date performances by a conductor as finely attuned as the late Thomas Jensen or the still-active Blomstedt on a high-carb day.

R.D. (September 2005)