ASGER HAMERIK: Symphonies – Randi Stene (mezzo-soprano) /Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra / Danish National Symphony Orchestra /Thomas Dausgaard – Dacapo (4 SACDs)

by | Dec 4, 2009 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

ASGER HAMERIK: Symphonies –  Randi Stene (mezzo-soprano) /Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra / Danish National Symphony Orchestra /Thomas Dausgaard – Dacapo multichannel SACDs (4) 6200002  (72:04 + 72:54 + 68:14 + 78:48) ****1/2 [Distr. by Naxos]:

Asger Hamerik (1843-1923) was the son of a highly respected Danish theologian and showed musical talent at an early age. He was allowed by his parents to study composition with Niels Gade and J.P.E. Hartmann, both of whom were related to his mother, and he was a distant relative of Rued Langgaard, whose aunt was Niels Gade’s daughter-in-law.

He wrote his first symphony as early as 1860 but the manuscript has yet to be discovered, and in 1862 was allowed to travel to London, then to Berlin to study with Hans von Bülow. Unfortunately the Danish-German war of 1864 made it necessary for him to leave Berlin, and he went to Paris armed with a letter of recommendation to Hector Berlioz. At this stage he altered his surname from Hammerich to Hamerik. Berlioz took the young Hamerik on as a composition student and the two remained friends until the Frenchman’s death in 1869. Another of Hamerik’s lost manuscripts is Hymne à la Paix, with Berliozian wind band, two organs and twelve harps.

In 1871, while in Vienna, the American consul offered him the post of Director of the Peabody Institute, Baltimore’s conservatoire and music society. He arrived in Baltimore in August 1871 and remained there for 27 years, and wrote all the works included in this splendid set while in America.

Hamerik’s symphonies owe their inspiration to all of this variety of environment and there are hints to be heard throughout. Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Gade, Dvorak and, of course, Berlioz influenced his writing subtly, and if it ends up not the most original it remains interesting. For much of his time in Baltimore Hamerik was blessed with an orchestra of 80 players, and his first symphony, dedicated to Anton Rubinstein, was premièred there, and very well received, in 1881.  It is possible some material from a Nordic Suite he had been writing was included, and the work is solidly crafted. The Second Symphony, in C minor, seems to take some inspiration from Beethoven’s in the same key in its last movement’s coda’s transformation from the tragic C minor to the triumphant major. Hamerik also makes use of the Berliozian idée fixe, a motif recurring throughout the work, which serves to glue the ideas together, and this conceit is used, too, in the following symphonies.

The Fifth Symphony’s scherzo is gorgeously Beethovenian, guaranteed to perk up the most jaded of souls. Sadly, financial circumstances in Baltimore precluded Hamerik’s using a full symphony orchestra from the mid-1890s; however, the composer rose to the occasion with his Sixth Symphony writing an original and charming work for strings only.  Boyd Neel recorded this work for Decca just after the war, a recording issued only on ffrr 78s and never reissued.

The Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra and Thomas Dausgaard achieve results of the highest quality and the performances come across as a labour of love. Every department in the orchestra shines, from silky strings to well-blended brass, and there are some lovely wind solos to be heard.

The Danish National Symphony Orchestra are equally impressive in the final two works, the choral Seventh Symphony and Requiem. The symphony was completed just before the board of trustees made the decision to suspend regular orchestral concert series and Hamerik had resigned and left before the première was given. Hamerik had married in 1894 and his wife gave birth not long after their return to Denmark to their son, Ebbe (1898-1951). The Seventh is in three movements, two slow ones framing a shorter quicker one and the structure is more individual here than in the purely instrumental works. The chorus contributed excellently, while the mezzo, Randi Stene, has a somewhat wide vibrato and is occasionally masked by the orchestra. The journey from quiet minor key opening to triumphant ending again uses the recurring motifs.

Stene’s singing is far more secure in the Requiem where she is contralto soloist. Hamerik had great love for this work and it was really very well received at both American and European premières. The brass fanfares in the Dies Irae gave me the distinct impression the work was about to transform into Mendelssohn’s Wedding March on more than one occasion; it certainly grabs the attention!

This set of discs comes with an excellent booklet running to 46 pages, with full texts provided and and an extensive and informative essay by Knud Ketting. The recordings in this collection date from 1997 to 2005 and have been remastered very successfully for SACD release. The earlier recordings’ multichannel elements sound real and not processed; although there is a noticeable improvement in sound quality from the First Symphony to the Sixth recorded in 2000, that early quality remains very good indeed and the most recent I found thoroughly excellent. Those with a love for Romantic and late-Romantic music will need little encouragement to sample this first-rate release.

Contents:

Symphony No. 1 in F major, Op. 29 “Symphonie poétique” (1879-80)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 32 “Symphonie tragique” (1882-83)
Symphony No. 3 in E major, Op. 33 “Symphonie lyrique” (1883-84)
Symphony No. 4 in C major, Op. 35 “Symphonie majestueuse” (1888-89)
Symphony No. 5 in G minor, Op. 36 “Symphonie sérieuse” (1889-91)
Symphony No. 6 in G major, Op. 38 “Symphonie spirituelle” (1897)
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Dausgaard

Symphony No. 7, Op. 40 "Choral-Symphony" for orchestra, choir and mezzo-soprano (1898)
Requiem, Op. 34 (1886-87) for orchestra, choir and contralto
Randi Stene – mezzo-soprano
Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Choir
Thomas Dausgaard

— Peter Joelson

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