C1861. ULF BJÖRLIN Cond. Royal Phil.: Symphonies Nos.1, 2, 3, & 4; Elfenspiel; Estrella de Soria - Tragic Overture; Reminiscences from the Norwegian Mountains (all Berwald). 2-EMI 73335, recorded 1977. Long out-of-print, Final Copy! - 724357333528
“The performances are under the care of the Swedish conductor Ulf Björlin, who leads the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and the whole enterprise is based on the latest musicological researches carried out in Sweden, where Berwald has always been esteemed, at least in contemporary times.
One of the problems with the Berwald revival is that there is not a large body of work to revive. The theater occupied much of his attention, but even the Swedes seem to have admitted, after a few modern attempts to stage his operas, that this composer lacked a real dramatic gift.
The difficulties in disseminating Berwald's music would have sounded like an old familiar story to the composer were he around today, for the uphill struggle he experienced in his lifetime (1796‐1868) was a very discouraging one. Regarded as dangerously avantgarde, if not downright eccentric, by the conservative musical establishment in his native country, Berwald heard very little of his music performed - the only symphony played before his death was the ‘Serieuse’ in g minor. Like Charles Ives, he was an industrious and resourceful man in other fields. During the 1830s he lived in Berlin, where he opened a highly successful orthopedic institute, while in the 1850s, back in Sweden, he managed a lucrative glass works factory.
In between, Berwald composed. With the money earned from his orthopedic enterprise, he took time off between 1841 and 1845, and it was during this highly creative period that he wrote all the music save for the two concertos. A restless traveler throughout his life, Berwald attracted the notice of such sympathetically progressive musicans as Liszt and Hans von Bülow, but most of his time seems to have been spent vainly seeking public acceptance and even the opportunity to hear his music. He received a bit of token recognition at the end of his life when ‘Estrella di Soria’ achieved a succès d'estime at the Stockholm Royal Opera, and he was finally appointed a professor of composition at the Swedish Royal Academy of Music in 1867.
There are many reasons why a composer may fail to attract notice while still living. In Berwald's case, he was no doubt a rather prickly personality and his broadly based interests - he was an indefatigable pamphleteer on such topics as housing, reforestation and education - were as advanced as his music. So much activity outside the bounds of music, as well as his strong opinions, made enemies as well as cast suspicion on his professionalism as a composer. More than anything else, though, it was the music itself that stirred up misunderstanding.
Berwald was actually about a generation ahead of his time in many ways, a key transitional figure into the age of Romanticism. One senses a compositional style based squarely on Beethoven, Weber and Cherubini, but more often than not his symphonies conjure up Berlioz in their individual orchestral coloring, Schumann in their harmonic audacity and Mendelssohn in their restless, impetuous vitality - all composers who were Berwald's juniors by some years. Despite these pre‐echoes, the symphonies as a whole sound quite unlike anyone else's - play one for a musical friend, and the chances are he will be hard put to identify the author.
Berwald likes to experiment with unusual formal devices. Sometimes, as in the ‘Sinfonie Singulière’, the scherzo movement is found embedded within the slow movement. Obviously, a composer of this sort requires a certain amount of effort from the listener, but if one chooses to stick with him, there is ample enjoyment and stimulation to be had from such an original, enquiring and invigorating musical mind.
Unlike many composers on the fringes of the repertory, Berwald has never been taken up by a performing genius as, say, Delius was by Sir Thomas Beecham. The performances by Ulf Björlin are crisp, warmly inflected and cogently planned and executed, if somewhat lacking in strong personality. This may not be the ultimate case for Berwald, but anyone on the lookout for some highly attractive and uncommonly sophisticated early Romantic music should not hesitate to investigate these carefully prepared recordings.”
- Peter G. Davis, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 2 Sept., 1979
“Franz Berwald enjoyed his most productive period as a composer from 1842-45. In an incredible burst of creativity during this brief time he composed four symphonies and five tone poems for orchestra. Only the Sinfonie sérieuse (#1) was performed in his lifetime, when it had a lukewarm reception. His best work, the Sinfonie singulière (#3), wasn’t performed until 50 years after his death. The symphonies are all inventive and quite distinctive, with many surprises along the way. The second movement of the Sinfonie singulière is a case in point. It begins calmly with an ethereal melody, but soon little woodwind chirps signal a different mood, and suddenly the listener is catapulted into a bustling scherzo. This vigorous music subsides into a recap of the slow theme and the movement closes quietly. The brass writing is colorful and these performances make the most of it. Conductor Ulf Björlin leads with energy and insight and gets terrific playing from the orchestra. His well-chosen tempos seem exactly right, as do the balances. The spacious recordings sound better than ever in EMI’s new ART processing. Overall, these performances rank among the best currently available.”
- ClassicsToday, April 2000