Thank you for the music

The mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter will be revealing the charms of Scandinavian song at this year's Proms, she tells Martin Anderson
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The Independent Culture

Politics can invade art in the grandest manner - and the effects, whatever one may feel about politicians themselves, are not always damaging. Look at the status of Edvard Grieg in Norway and Jean Sibelius in Finland - both composers are national icons, and their music is familiar to ordinary folk who never go near a concert hall.

In Denmark, by contrast, Carl Nielsen, a far stronger composer than Grieg, doesn't enjoy anything like his popular status. Why not? Politics, I think. Sibelius and Grieg had the good fortune to come along when their countries - Finland, under the Russian yoke; Norway, subservient to Sweden - needed cultural figureheads. Denmark, playing above its weight for centuries, didn't need any symbols, so Nielsen goes almost unnoticed outside specialist circles.

What hope for Swedish composers, then, with Sweden the dominant force in northern Europe for most of the past five centuries? The major Swedish contemporary of Grieg, Sibelius and Nielsen was Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927), with two magnificent symphonies and a gorgeous orchestral serenade, six string quartets and some exquisite songs to his credit. But even at home his work is barely heard,and there is little chance of hearing it abroad.

But one such opportunity comes to the Proms next week, when the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter sings two of his songs, and one by his longer-lived contemporary Hugo Alfven (1872-1960), on 5 August, accompanied by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under its American conductor, Alan Gilbert. Von Otter ruefully concedes that "hardly any of our composers are known abroad, with the exception of Stenhammar, maybe, who is known very little if you compare him with Sibelius or Grieg or Nielsen". But she doesn't buy my political explanation of Grieg's exceptional popularity. "Grieg is capable of writing a tune that sticks in your ear," she argues, "whereas Nielsen doesn't quite do that for you - Nielsen was a great symphony-writer."

Von Otter is a realist, too, qualifying my assertion that Stenhammar was likewise capable of some wonderful tunes. "Not at all in the same way as Grieg songs," she says. "There are no songs by Stenhammar that you can compare to them - they are not 'ear-worms' in the same way that Grieg songs are. People melt when they hear 'Jeg elsker deg' - 'I love you' - but you need to hear Stenhammar songs a couple of times before they mean a lot. You can appreciate them first time round but not become totally enamoured with them like you can with Grieg songs. The secret of any kind of music that becomes popular is that it's very accessible."

Von Otter has been breaking a lance for Swedish song for years: it features regularly in her recitals, and she and Bengt Forsberg, her regular pianist, have dedicated two Deutsche Grammophon CDs to it: Wings in the Night (1996) - "with Sjogren, Stenhammar, Peterson-Berger, the slightly earlier composers" - and, this spring, Watercolours - "These are the slightly later ones: Lars-Erik Larsson, Bo Linde, etc." In spite of the beauty of this repertoire - and the glorious singing on her two recordings - these songs are far too little known. The particular advantage of singing even a handful of them in a Prom is that it will take Stenhammar and Alfven, in this instance, to ears that have never encountered them before. "That is absolutely right, and to sing them with orchestra isn't done that often, either."

I've heard many Finnish musicians complain that when they go abroad, all they're asked to perform is Sibelius. Since Swedish musicians don't face the same monopsony, why don't we hear them performing more Swedish music in concert? "It depends what kind of musician you are. Concert promoters know that there's a large Swedish song repertoire and they're happy to have it in a programme, whereas with a pianist or violinist it's maybe not the same thing. And definitely not when it comes to famous Swedish conductors: there is none, except for Herbert Blomstedt in Germany. But we always put in a big chunk of Swedish repertoire in the first half, because we like to do them - and because of the disc as well - but mainly because I do enjoy singing these Swedish texts."

History has dealt her a good hand there: for all that Sibelius is a Finnish totem, he was one of the 10 per cent of the Finnish population whose mother tongue was Swedish; as a result, almost all of his near-100 songs are set to Swedish texts. "That's very lucky for us Swedes: it means we make him our own composer." Indeed, von Otter makes Sibelius her own at her Prom, with two of his best-known songs, "Black Roses" and "On a Balcony by the Sea" - and, paradoxically, a Finnish song that's a real rarity, "Kaiutar" ("The Echo-Nymph"). Sibelius's orchestral songs are among the most sorely neglected parts of his output: hearing von Otter sing them at the Proms - prefaced in the first half by Joshua Bell in the Sibelius Violin Concerto - will be an exceptional treat.

That concert and another on 23 August, when the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by the Dane Thomas Dausgaard, introduces a symphony by Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-92), "the Swedish Mozart", form the bridgehead of a much larger Swedish invasion force that will begin to be deployed in the autumn, in a series of 30-plus concerts under the brown-paper title From Sweden. The nine-month festival embraces chamber music, organ recitals, a jazz project, three orchestral concerts at the Barbican and three invitation concerts at the BBC Maida Vale studios, further concerts on the South Bank and a number of education events, culminating in a mid-summer celebration at the Barbican on 21 June - the famous Swedish Midsommarvaka, mid-summer vigil.

The stimulus for From Sweden came from the cellist Mats Lidstrom, Stockholm-born but now living in London, former principal cello of the Royal Philharmonic and now a sought-after soloist. Lidstrom had "always thought that Swedish music has never been broadly presented to London audiences. If you hear Swedish music on the radio, it's always the same pieces, the Dag Wiren Serenade or something like that" - which some readers may remember as the theme music of the TV series Monitor. "But there's an enormous treasury of music there. One gets annoyed a bit that Norway gets so much coverage for Grieg. Sweden just doesn't have a spearhead like that. There are a lot of fine composers, and a lot of great pieces, even if there might not be a composer who wrote nothing but great pieces.

"The frightening fact is that Swedish musicians don't know the repertoire, and they don't know where to look. I wanted to show Swedish music before 1930, most of which is not brought out - indeed, most of it is not even published. So I went to Stockholm for a week in June last year, visited all the institutions - the Royal Library and everywhere where there would be Swedish music - and I studied scores."

All 12 chamber-music concerts in From Sweden will take place in the Wigmore Hall, whose artistic director, Paul Kildea, "wasn't so turned on by just having Swedish music in his house," Lidstrom confesses, "and we realised that we should maybe look at something broader. So the chamber concerts in the Wigmore Hall have become very much a Swedish-British music festival, with maybe a 60 per cent Swedish balance to it."

Was the idea to sweeten the programmes for timorous British audiences? "No, not at all. Well, there's the Elgar Piano Quintet [23 January], but that's balanced with some totally unknown pieces" - trios by Adolf Lindblad and Bo Linde and a very different Rite of Spring by Ture Rangstrom. "It's chamber music that I can guarantee is very good. And just in case people think that it's a bit stuffy having music before 1930, we have a lot of contemporary music. Indeed, the BBC is commissioning a cello concerto from Rolf Martinsson; that will be in May."

Some tentative inroads have been made into this unexplored northern forest by the Swedish label Musica Sveciae, which over the past three years has released 20 CDs of works that are almost completely unfamiliar. The Violin Sonata and First String Quartet of the Finnish-Swedish-Jewish Moses Pergament (1893-1977) are near-masterpieces (PSCD 711). I don't think I had heard of Edvin Kallstenius (1881-1967) before his lyrical Clarinet Quintet of 1930 appeared on PSCD 708; and Melcher Melchers (1882-1961) was only a name - an unlikely one, I admit -when his powerful D minor Symphony (1926) emerged, dark and swirling, on PSCD 717.

From Sweden will allow London audiences to hear some outstanding Swedish musicians as well. Bengt Forsberg joins forces with Lidstrom and the Chamber Ensemble of the English Chamber Orchestra at the Wigmore Hall on 18 October, to launch the festival with a programme of Kallstenius, Stanford and Berwald. Six days later Malena Ernman, another stunning Swedish mezzo, gives a Wigmore recital which will probably be thrilling: her vocal technique is earboggling. The clarinettist Martin Frost joins Lidstrom in a contemporary Swedish repertoire on 28 November. The glittering list goes on. We are in for a feast.

'From Sweden': Prom 28, Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020-7589 8212; 5 August; chamber music at Wigmore Hall, London W1 (020-7935 2141; from 18 October (