Unearthed Berwald Songs Followed by Shani’s Inspiring Mahler

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Berwald, Mahler: Lisa Larsson (soprano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Lahav Shani (conductor), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 29.11.2018. (JR)

Lisa Larsson © Merlijn Doomernik

Berwald arr. Martinsson – ‘Traumreise’ Songs for soprano and orchestra

Mahler – Symphony No.4

Franz Berwald was a Swedish composer who died in 1868 (the date is relevant, read on). His CV makes fascinating reading. Born in Stockholm, the son of a German musician from Schleswig, in 1796 (half a year before Schubert), Berwald played the violin at the Hofkapelle at the age of 16. After studying medicine, he left Sweden in his early thirties to become an orthopaedic surgeon in Berlin; twelve years later he returned to Sweden, failed to find his feet in the musical world, and then became a director first of a glass works and then a saw mill before, at the ripe old age of 68, entering the Royal Music Academy (talk of a late developer!). Three years later, he was Professor of Composition at the Academy, but sadly died a year later. Of his four symphonies, only one was played in his lifetime.

The date 1868 was relevant for this concert as that was the very year in which the Tonhalle Gesellschaft was formed in Zurich, and so the orchestra commissioned Lisa Larsson to come up with a project to commemorate the founding of the orchestra. After two years’ painstaking research in the Library of the Royal Music Academy of Stockholm, Larsson unearthed a number of hitherto virtually unknown songs by Berwald and selected nine of them, which she presented to her frequent collaborator, Swedish composer Rolf Martinsson to be orchestrated.

Martinsson has skilfully merged the songs into one continuum, where one song segues into the next, almost imperceptibly. It becomes a dreamy journey through a number of lands and a number of languages, Swedish of course, but also French (spoken in sophisticated circles at the time in Sweden) and German. The songs deal with nature, war and love and stem from several writers including Schiller. They are akin to melodic folk songs. Martinsson has coloured them to good effect; I was taken by the opening the final song ‘Traum’, where the strings create a charming dreaminess. Larsson mastered all the languages with aplomb but was most expressive in her native Swedish. I was not always sure of her intonation when unaccompanied. I am also unsure we are going to see a Berwald revival any time soon.

Lahav Shani, in his short post-concert interview, admitted he would not be where he is today without Gustav Mahler. Shani won first prize at the International Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2013, conducting Mahler’s First Symphony. Mahler was 28 when he wrote that symphony, Shani is now only 29.

Shani’s affinity with Mahler shone through his reading of Mahler’s charming Fourth Symphony at every turn. In the Berwald, Shani had – properly – taken a back seat but now he was full frontal, full of ideas, which the orchestra dutifully put into effect. That applied also to the positioning of the instruments, double basses far left, horns far right, antiphonal violins. He also placed the soloist behind the second violins and violas, which turned out to be something of an error of acoustic judgment, see below.

The opening movement had plenty of dramatic urgency, Shani not fighting shy of the more grotesque elements and rough edges of the symphony, often glossed over in other performances. Isaac Duarte’s creamy oboe stood out.

The slow movement was as achingly tender as the more famous Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, except that Mahler incorporates, towards the end of the movement, quite a rousing and anguished climax, to make up for the fact that the whole symphony ends serenely.

In the final movement, a song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Larsson was more at home than in the Berwald, nurturing each phrase, such as with ‘Wir führen ein englisches Leben, sind dennoch ganz lustig daneben’ (‘We lead an angelic life, but are quite merry nonetheless’). ‘Ein englisches Leben’ is not a reference to the joys of Brexit.

Larsson was placed towards the back of the stage and her angelic soprano was not always clearly audible. A shame, as otherwise this was an inspiring and inspired performance of this gem of a symphony.

John Rhodes

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