Classical: Music on CD

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BERWALD The Four Symphonies

Malmo Symphony / Ehrling

BIS CD 795-6, 2 CDs

Sweden's answer to Felix Mendelssohn ran a glassworks, a saw mill and, briefly, a brick factory, before setting up his successful orthopaedic institute in Berlin. So it was best foot forward to immortality. Sadly, he lived to hear only one of his symphonies performed. Nobody understood them anyway. Not really, not then. Remember that he was born the year before Schubert. And keep remembering as you listen. Because you may think you recognise the language, the Mendelssohnian and Schumannesque gestures, but you'll be surprised by the form they take.

Berwald was a form-buster. The quirkiness of his musical personality is entirely unexpected. It's like watching the classical symphony do handstands. The behaviour is somehow inappropriate. Friendly persuasions (and there are many) are met by as many odd departures. The tonal scheming suggests Nielsen, 50 years too soon. There's something playful, capricious about the gamesmanship. Berwald, the polemicist, is evident in the argumentative nature of his musical developments. But at the heart of him is the extraordinary individuality of his melodic writing. Seemingly unremarkable ideas (sometimes no more than a single phrase) are moved to sing: the benevolence of his slow movements is treasurable.

Particularly as here, under the veteran Swedish conductor Sixten Ehrling, whose patience affords them a breadth and mellowness that none of his rivals can match. The Adagio of Symphony No 4 sounds like it's carving out a glorious future. And that it is. Berwald put Sweden, indeed Scandinavia, on the musical map. And if you don't think that's saying much, think again. Think Stenhammar, Sibelius, and Nielsen for starters. Edward Seckerson


Sonata for Cello; Songs etc

McNair, Ma, Previn

Sony SK 62004

Andre Previn's first opera - A Streetcar Named Desire - is no longer a rumour but a growing reality. And call me crazy, but it might just work. I base this somewhat rash prediction not on Previn's past incursions (dubious, to say the least) into the the world of music theatre (do you know his scores for Coco and The Good Companions?) but on the recent spate of songs. The songs are what this album is about. They're good. For the second time now, he's setting texts by Toni Morrison (the first being his Honey and Rue cycle for Kathleen Battle). And he trusts them, goes with them, imposes nothing, falsifies nothing, and never succumbs to those irritating vocal tics so beloved of the contemporary music establishment. So the vocal lines sit very naturally. Because Previn is doing what comes naturally.

The Two Remembrances - "A Love Song" and "Lyric" - were written only last year and already sound familiar - in the best sense. The sultry alto flute sets the tone (doing for these German texts what Previn's equally telling cello obbligato does for the Morrison), but it's the exquisite piano refrain of "Lyric" (more than a hint of Bernstein in that) which greets you like an old friend the moment you hear it. That's Previn pure and simple, a jazzman's fingers on the keys - the melody, the chords, uncovered in the playing of them. Which is the character of Vocalise, too. He wrote it (specially for this album) in a matter of hours, having first scrapped an initial draft for being "too complicated". So what if it's now a close relative (not a poor copy) of the Rachmaninov? It sings, and so does Sylvia McNair - very well. Which brings me to the Cello Sonata - a big and ambitious piece (some 30 minutes) which never seems quite sure what it's come as. Previn "the composer" is very much in evidence, but he's the someone he wants to be, not the someone he is. Perhaps he's rather too mindful of his European origins. Perhaps a little more First American and a little less Second Viennese would have made all the difference. When Yo-Yo Ma (who's terrific, as you'd expect) gets to turn jazz bassist in the finale, you feel like he's asking the composer, "what kept you?". ES


Piano Concertos Nos 1 to 5; Septet

Jeanne-Marie Darre (piano), Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion / Fourestier

Recorded 1955-1957

EMI CZS5 69470, 2 CDs

A delightful cycle that alternates cool neo-classicism with sparkling frivolity and Lisztian virtuosity with the sweetest melodies imaginable. Saint-Saens, like Poulenc, could toy with baroque austerity one moment, then throw you into a musical punch bowl. His piano concertos are invariably extrovert and always skilfully written - and there are surprises galore. The Fifth Concerto, the so-called "Egyptian", was written during a Nile holiday for the 50th anniversary of the composer's debut and creates a sound-world where Arabian folk music and an imitated gamelan sit side by side. The Second Concerto was once caricatured as "beginning with Bach and ending with Offenbach" and the Fourth recalls the exultant bravura of the Organ Symphony.

Good recordings of the cycle are fairly common, though none is more distinguished than this mono set featuring Jeanne-Marie Darre. Darre was one of the finest representatives of the French School, a brilliant performer whose keyboard skills were matched by her formidable reputation as a pedagogue. The French radio orchestra sounds comparatively raw in tone, but Fourestier's conducting is memorably stylish. There's a frothy bonus in the tuneful Septet, again played as to the manner born and, like everything else on this superb set, a perfect pick-me-up. Robert Cowan