Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphonies: No. 3; No. 6,
Mario Venzago, cond; Gothenburg SO
BIS 1383 (56:00)
Hilding Rosenberg (1892–1985) is virtually unknown in the U.S., though on the evidence here he stands as one of Sweden’s most accomplished composers. He was, as well, a significant voice in the development of Swedish Modernism, and a major influence on a whole generation of Swedish composers. Like Rued Langgaard in Denmark, of whom he was a contemporary, his innovations
met with critical disapproval at first, but a different talent and a more sanguine nature eventually won him acceptance and position. By the late 1950s he had, as annotator Tomas Block puts it, “the aura of a ‘grand old man’ of Swedish music.” Several
critics have sung Rosenberg’s praises in the few reviews that appeared in these pages, especially Paul Snook. I am glad to add my voice to the chorus.
This is music of real distinction, modern only in the sense of rejecting the then prevailing late-Romantic style, beautifully crafted and brilliantly orchestrated. It is hard to believe, from the perspective of our century, that this attractive music could ever have been a problem. Alternately heroic and melancholy, it is constantly fascinating, very clearly the product of a remarkable musical mind. Rosenberg was mentored by Wilhelm Stenhammar, who by the time they met had disenthralled himself from the German Romantics and was searching for a more Nordic style. Rosenberg was inspired, as was his adviser, by Sibelius, though by the Fourth Symphony rather than the Second. However, he was also much struck by the transparency and tonal ambiguity of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1. These influences, tempered by a study of modern French scores while visiting Paris in 1920, go some way to suggesting qualities the listener should expect: emotionally open-spirited, elusive of key, elegant, and subtly colored.
Rosenberg’s music has not been easy to find outside of Sweden. BIS has been among those labels that have documented Rosenberg’s output, though usually only a work or two at a time in compilations. This disc dedicated to Rosenberg, and presenting arguably his two finest symphonies of the eight produced, is most welcome. The Third Symphony is the first of his symphonies in which he has integrated his influences into his own voice, though Sibelius still dominates. Because of the severe criticism of the first two, the composer originally set it into a radio play titled
The Four Ages of Man
, using texts by novelist Romain Rolland, in order to appeal. The texts, programmatic descriptions, and the movement titles—“The Child,” “The Boy,” “The Youth,” and “The Man”—were removed in subsequent revisions, and the work now stands without the play. The Sixth, which follows two additional programmatic symphonies, signals a later-life consolidation into a symphonic language of essentials. Though hardly what the subtitle “Sinfonia Semplice” suggests—there is nothing simple about the work—it achieves the not-a-note-too-many economy of Mozart in its concentrated expressiveness. The opening cello solo, reminiscent of Schoenberg’s early work, signals the change. Elsewhere one occasionally notices that Rosenberg and Walton took similar points of departure from Sibelius, but in the end this is music that could not be mistaken for anyone else’s. Rosenberg’s ambivalent endings can leave the listener wishing for more, but that should be the only disappointment.
Mario Venzago, who left Gothenburg in 2007, recorded these performances in 2004 and 2005. That assumedly means no cycle. That is too bad, as I find Venzago a worthy guide to this music. Earlier recordings of these works by Herbert Blomstedt (the Third in 1966) and Stig Westerberg (Sixth in 1960) on Phono Suecia 100 may have a bit more character, but this new release otherwise supersedes that issue in orchestra virtuosity, dynamic sound (marred only by a slight graininess), and easy availability.
FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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