Tuneful and entertaining 20th century orchestral music from a notable Swedish composer.

DAG WIREN: Symphony No. 3—Sinfonietta—Serenade for Strings—Divertimento—Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Rumon Gamba –  Chandos, 70:18 [Dist. by Naxos] ****:

At the young age of 22, the Swedish composer Dag Wiren (1905-1986) went to a performance of Honegger’s oratorio Le Roi David at the Stockholm opera. It changed his life. “My eyes were opened and my ears heard what they had previously been deaf to,” Wiren exclaimed. He was studying organ, piano, conducting and composition at the Stockholm Conservatory. He visited Paris in 1931, a common practice for budding young composers in the world (Copland, Glass, etc.). He learned more from attending concerts Paris in the 1930’s (Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Les Six) than he did from studying orchestration with Leonid Sabaneyev. When Wiren came home he composed the most popular work, the Serenade for Strings (1937).

Rather than embrace modernism, Wiren belonged to a group of Swedish composers (Larsson, Koch and others) often referred to “Composers of the Thirties” who embraced neo-classism. The Serenade for Strings deserves its popularity—there’s a clarity of structure, superb balance, abundant melodic content and droll humor that’s reminiscent of his Danish colleague Nielsen. But these are also characteristics of his heroes, Mozart and Bach. “I believe in Bach, Mozart, Nielsen and absolute music,” Wiren commented. The last movement, Marcia is well known in Britain, as it was a signature tune to the BBC’s cultural program Monitor. Yet, the beautiful and moving Andante expressivo is the soul of this delightful work. The Sinfonietta (1933-4, revised 1939) is from the same period, with a wit that is reminiscent of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony.

Wiren’s Third Symphony (1943-4) denotes a new phase in his compositional development. Sometimes Wiren complained that thematic ideas came so infrequently that he had to use them in different ways. Instead of revealing the whole theme at once, he divided his theme into motives, calling it “metamorphosis transformation.” He then showed how the germ grew and developed. Sibelius was one of the first to use cell development and Wiren was familiar with the Norwegian master. The whole symphony is essentially structured in a large scale sonata form. In the first movement the initial cell (one note) starts quietly and grows into a thrilling climax. A beautiful second cantabile theme evolves slowly in the second movement, providing contrast to the first movement. The moving climax quietly reprises the first movement’s theme. In the finale the two themes struggle with each other, with the second emerging victorious, ending the symphony on a triumphant and joyous note. The brass at the end are reminiscent of the ending of the Sibelius Second Symphony.

The Divertimento (1953-7) is more introverted work, and, beginning with the first movement, the influence of Nielsen (percussion) and Sibelius (winds) is clear. It’s also more modern and interesting without eschewing a positive and entertaining mood. The mysterious Andantino is memorable.

On a different recording of the Third Symphony (CPO 999 677), Thomas Dausgaard and the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra provide more drama in a faster performance, the sonic perspective is closer, and it’s a better played.  But Gamba is more expansive and emotive in the quieter sections. This is an excellent introduction to Wiren’s listener-friendly music. If you like Sibelius and Nielsen, you will like Wiren.

—Robert Moon