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ClassicsOnline Home » BERWALD: Piano Quintets
By Geoffrey Norris
The Daily Telegraph (Australia)
"The recorded sound on this CD favours the piano, with the strings sounding slightly more distant. But, once you get used to that, the Uppsala Chamber Soloists' performances of these two and a half piano quintets by Franz Berwald (1796-1868) offer engaging insights into the music of the leading Swedish composer of the 19th century.
The two extra movements on this disc were probably intended originally for the A major Quintet, and, like the rest of the music here, show within a securely crafted framework, a beguiling inventiveness coupled with a talent for whimsy and surprise."
Complete Works for
Almost everybody would agree that Franz Berwald was the music world's
leading light in nineteenth-century Sweden. Many regard him as Sweden's
foremost composer, but during his lifetime few of his countrymen appreciated
his art. This was partly because symphonies, the genre at which he excelled,
were little appreciated. Besides operas and Singspiele, more intimate
forms of music practised in the home with friends were preferred, such as piano
pieces, chamber music, works for male choir and solo songs. Most of what was
written was unpretentious in the salon music vein.
Orchestral concerts were given sporadically by the Hovkapellet, the
orchestra of the Royal Opera, but the few symphonies that were presented in
these concerts were foreign and usually quite old. For decades in Sweden no new
symphonies appeared, Adolf Lindblad's Symphony No. 1 being the
only example. Its first performance in 1832 is significant from a musical
historical point of view, but it hardly made an impact. Around ten years later
the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra played it, but in Sweden Lindblad remained
known exclusively for his songs and chamber music.
It is therefore easy to understand why Berwald the sophisticate found
the antiquated Swedish music scene suffocating. In 1829, at the age of
thirty-three, he left Sweden and moved to Berlin, where he remained for twelve
years, working not as a musician but in one of the other professions he was
obliged to practise during his lifetime in order to support himself. As a
skilled orthopaedic surgeon he managed to make a successful living, from 1835
running his own orthopaedic institute. In his free time he wrote a not
insubstantial amount of music, first and foremost operatic fragments, although
nothing complete has emerged from this time. One can wonder why, since he ad
found a more inspiring milieu.
In the spring of 1841 he closed the institute and moved to Vienna, by
all accounts to continue his work in the orthopaedic field. He discovered,
however, that the Viennese showed an interest in his music, which seems to have
cleared his writers' block. Although he only remained in Vienna for a year he
managed to write several works, including two symphonies, four orchestral
fantasies and the opera Estrella de Soria. Some of the works were played
immediately, including most of the opera. He himself conducted three of the
shorter pieces. The reception he was given in this cosmopolitan city was more
positive than any he had experienced before. One can understand why he might
have felt that the world was ready for his music, even Sweden. After thirteen
years abroad he decided to return home. In April 1842 he arrived in Stockholm
with his bags full of new music.
His hopes had been in vain however. The Swedish music scene had not
changed noticeably at all. Stockholm, was, apart from the Opera, as provincial
as it had always been, at least it seemed that way to Berwald, who was now used
to the rich concert life on the continent. The few compositions he managed to
have performed met with little success. Some works were deemed uninteresting,
others the work of an eccentric outsider. Yet he did have some new ideas – from
a Swedish perspective. Inspiration came from innovators such as Beethoven and
Cherubini and, to a certain extent, Weber. When it came to inventiveness,
sudden leaps and unexpected key changes, he often went further than they did.
The musical development of apiece by Berwald was far less predictable than most
of the music that was known in Sweden at the time, and for us it is precisely
the unexpected which makes it so exciting.
During his years abroad Berwald must have heard the music of Europe's
true innovators; Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner, although their influence is
noticeably absent from his music. He continued to draw inspiration from the
classicists and early romantics, Gluck and Mozart being among those he admired
What was foreign to Swedish audiences of the day was his pronounced personal
style, rather than anything truly revolutionary.
Of Berwald's four symphonies, only the Sinfonie sérieuse (Naxos
8.553051) was played during his lifetime; once, badly rehearsed and with a
greatly reduced orchestra. The performance took place at the Royal Opera House
in Stockholm in 1843 under the direction of a conductor who, it seems, showed
no great interest in the work. This was Berwald's cousin Johan Fredrik Berwald,
renowned as an imaginative director of music, but not on very good terms with
cousin Franz, ten years his junior.
Whether through personal animosity, a lack of understanding of the music
or quite simply insufficient rehearsal time, Swedish audiences' only
opportunity to hear the symphonic genius of Berwald was thus lost. The Sinfonie
sérieuse was not performed again until 1876, eight years after Berwald's
death. Several of his other symphonies had to wait until the beginning of the
twentieth century for first performances.
In 1846 Berwald departed once more for foreign shores, stopping in
Paris, Vienna, Salzburg and southern Germany. In Vienna he was once again
warmly received, on one occasion in a performance with Jenny Lind. In Vienna he
became one of the few Swedes accorded the honour of being elected an honorary
member of the Mozarteum. He also received warm receptions elsewhere.
Economic difficulties forced Berwald to return to Sweden for good in
1849 and for seven years he managed a glassworks in Ångermanland in northern
Sweden. He was still able to spend his winters in Stockholm where, amongst
other things, he was able to take part in performances of chamber music in the
homes of various musically-inclined families. His failure to gain an audience
for his larger works caused him now to concentrate almost completely on chamber
music. In the ten years after his return to Sweden he completed two piano
quintets, two string quartets, three piano trios as well as duos for violin and
piano and cello and piano. Six of these works he had published by the Hamburg
publishing house Schuberth.
As a young man Berwald had spent several years as a violinist in the
Opera House Hovkapellet, but he had far less practical experience with
the piano, and does not seem to have been especially familiar with the ways in
which Schumann, Mendelssohn and other contemporaries used the instrument. His
piano parts are therefore not especially pianistic, which was noted by critics
at the time. That he continued to write for the instrument was probably due to
the fact that most private ensembles had access to a piano.
Berwald's interest in chamber music was further encouraged by an
unusually gifted pupil of his, Hilda Thegerströbm. On the recommendation of
Berwald she went on to study in Paris with Antoine Marmontel, who taught Bizet,
Debussy and other great musicians, as well as with Franz Liszt in Weimar. It was
in Weimar that she made a successful début when she was barely twenty and she
soon came to be regarded as Sweden's foremost pianist.
It was for Hilda Thegerström that Berwald composed his Piano Quintet in
C minor, as well as his Piano Concerto (Naxos 8.553052). From the
beginning Berwald referred to the C minor Quintet as Quintet No.
2, from which one can deduce that the Piano Quintet in A major, completed
in 1857, was conceived before its sister work, probably around 1850. Presumably
it then also included the two movements Larghetto and Scherzo, which
have survived separately, as these are preceded in the original manuscript by
the last few bars of the first movement of the A major Quintet. Both finales
borrow material from two orchestral works from 1842; the tone poem Wettlauf
(‘Racing’) and the overture Bajadärfesten (‘Festival of the
Bayadères’). In common with Handel and Bach, Berwald often used material
borrowed from earlier compositions.
Berwald took the Quintet in C minor with him when he paid a short
visit to Liszt in the spring of 1857. Liszt immediately played through the work
and Berwald later wrote: 'I have had the opportunity to hear my Quintet played
– straight from the score – by a true poetic master. This was music! No longer
just a piano but a whole orchestra! I shall never forget his name!'
As a gesture of thanks Berwald dedicated his Quintet in A major
to Liszt. The following February, when the published work reached him,
Liszt sent a message to Berwald: 'You express yourself with invention, skill
and agility, your developments and recapitulations are masterfully executed,
your style both elegant and harmonically original. If I must pronounce on your
work I would say that its most outstanding qualities are its lively invention
and an exquisite feeling for development. Thus you satisfy the demands of the
art without once abandoning common sense'.
Liszt also wrote of audiences' lack of understanding, saying
'unfortunately such audiences are everywhere. As far as supposed connoisseurs
and musical experts are concerned, I quote from the Good Book: "They have
ears, but they hear not". Believe me, sir, you must not allow yourself to
be influenced by these many critics with big ears, rather continue to compose
as your heart and fantasy dictates…You truly possess originality but you will
not enjoy success during your lifetime. Nevertheless you must persevere'.
The Quintet in C minor was performed on several occasions
with Hilda Thegerström at the piano. It was not until 1874 that a public
performance seems to have taken place. The Quintet in A major, as far as
can be ascertained, was first performed in 1895 by the Aulin Quartet and
English version: Andrew Smith
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BERWALD: Piano Quintets