Berwald Symphonies Goodman Hyperion Dyad CDD22043

Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2004 and the recording is still available.

Franz Berwald (1796-1868)
Symphony No 1
Symphony No 2 Sinfonie capricieuse
Symphony No 3 Sinfonie Singulière
Symphony No 4 Sinfonie naïve
Symphony in A (completed Druce, 1820)
Estrella de Soria Overture (1862)
Queen of Golconda Overture (1864)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Roy Goodman
rec. 1995, Berwaldhallen, Stockholm
Hyperion Dyad CDD22043 [2CDs: 145]

reviewed this first in 1999 when Hyperion first issued the set receiving plaudits for the musicality of the performances and for their adventurous spirit. Berwald is not exactly top ‘box office’ material. The music is not the problem: it is lively, beautiful, romantic and surprising. All it needs is to be liberated by a good recording. There have been quite a few over the years and the CD era has however given us something approaching an explosion of Berwald symphonic recordings. At bargain price there are two very fine sets: one from Arte Nova and the other from Naxos. I have not heard the latter (Okko Kamu conducts) but the reviews I have seen suggest it is well worth hearing. The Arte Nova is very fine indeed but includes only the four half hour symphonies on two discs [review]. It does not include the Duncan Druce-completed fragment (Hyperion are the only source for this) or the two overtures.

The old EMI Björlin set is available (I am not sure if everything on the original EMI boxed set of LPs has been reissued) in individual discs but shows its age in recording terms. The DG Järvi is an estimable set with glowing virtues, but again lacks the Druce item and the two overtures.

Berwald is such a lively composer and I have a feeling that many people who visit this site may never have given him a chance. I hadn’t until quite recently and I find him a major discovery.

Be clear, Berwald is not a neo-romantic. His dates should make that clear anyway. His music blends the voices of Weber (Freischütz and Oberon), with Beethoven (the livelier moments: Symphonies 5 and 7) and over-arching everything, Schubert. All the works recorded here are deeply rewarding lyrical statements and should be popular with anyone who loves the music of my cross-reference composers. His voice is no mere facsimile of these great names. He adds an idiosyncratic dash of woodwind sparkle and a prominent bloom from the French Horns.

The overture to Estrella da Soria has the bustle of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, the magic of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer’s Night Dream music, the heroism of Egmont and rounded with the romantic glow of a Tchaikovsky ballet-apotheosis. The Queen of Golconda has its moments, but Estrella is a gem. The Singulière is just that and there are some remarkably prophetic moments in which Sibelius seems to smile through the Beethovenian athleticism. Indeed, the Finale of the Singulière has the explosive rawness of Nielsen – the brass are especially brazen as if they have escaped from Nielsen’s first two symphonies yet written at least half a century earlier.

Duncan Druce, the renowned violist, completed the isolated movement of Berwald’s 1820 A major symphony-fragment. It was intended to be the first movement of a Symphony never completed. At more than 16 minutes, it is longer than the first movement of the four symphonies of the 1840s. It has a sweetened and emphatic Beethovenian freshness that The Golconda overture (one of his last works) lacks as well as some remarkably Rossini-like moments (5.10). The Sérieuse is a work full of inventive fantasy ahead of its time. Yes it looks to the Beethoven of the Eroica and Egmont but also one finds flavourings from Dvořák, Mendelssohn and even Tchaikovsky. The recording of the horns and woodwind are adroitly balanced throughout producing a pleasing, delicate and piquant effect.

No other set has the present coupling. At a stunning price anyone at all curious would do well to hear this fine set especially because the two overtures are not conveniently available in any other form; of course the substantial symphonic fragment cannot otherwise be had. Hyperion cornered the market with the full price set. At two for one price, the competition had best look to its laurels.

The box (at last in slim-line form) is enhanced by the usual fine design attention and trilingual notes by conductor Roy Goodman.

The teaming of Goodman (familiar from some rather good Nimbus Schubert symphonies) with the Swedish orchestra was not necessarily going to be a marriage made in heaven. However from the results Goodman must surely have guested with the orchestra, such is the blessed union evident from these performances.

Rob Barnett

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