LARS-ERIK LARSSON: Symphony No. 2; Variations, Op. 50; Barococo Suite, Op. 64 – Helsingborg Sym. Orch./Andrew Manze – CPO 777 672-2 multichannel SACD [Distr. by Naxos], 69:53, (11/13/15) ***:

Very dedicated performances of these works that remain pretty obscure.

There are probably a lot of reasons why the music of Swedish composer Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986) does not get played much anymore, least of all outside of northern Europe. Larsson was one of those many ‘bridge’ composers caught in the stylistic transition between the mainly Romantic idiom and the later ‘progressives.’ His music contains strains of such a style; sounding like Sibelius in places; perhaps some Franz Berwald, and is not really so unique as to sound unlike others around him.
Another reason could be that, for a composer writing this way deep into the mid-twentieth century, he was battling the ‘new wave’ of genuinely new and unique sound worlds occupied by Prokofiev, Bartok, Nielsen and others. So, his music remains eminently listenable and attractive but rather lost in time (which is interesting, because according to the helpful booklet notes by Christoph Schlüren, Larsson even studied with Alban Berg for a while; disappointed not only that he did not get to study with Franz Schmidt but in the lack of truly innovative ideas he obtained from Berg, the iconoclast.)

Regardless, these are – for the most part – very nice, attractive works that I found very enjoyable. The big work here, Larsson’s Symphony No. 2, is a very straight forward three-movement work that does sound a lot like early Sibelius in places and contains an unusual ostinato in the opening of the final movement. Schlüren’s notes reference Larsson’s use of some “dissonant counterpoint” but this is barely evident and does not seem too ‘dissonant’ at all in this work. It is said that Larsson never felt success in the realm of symphony writing and, at one point, withdrew all three of his symphonies from performance consideration. I found this work, by and large, a pleasant, if not demanding, listen.

I was not as taken with the other two works here. Larsson’s Variations is a much later work. Written in 1962, it shows the composer’s use of a full non-serial dodecaphonic palate and nice orchestral color throughout. These Variations are a compact set of under eighteen minutes and the piece does hold the interest throughout. I did enjoy the Symphony more but this is a pretty robust work well worth your attention.

The Barococo Suite just did not do much for me. It was written to be a purposefully playful imitation of or homage to the typical Baroque suites as heard in late seventeenth century France, for example. Larsson used wry little whimsical movement subtitles such as “Gavotte on Bassoon Street” or “Minuet on Clarinet Street” to shore up the light-hearted but well-crafted mood in this work. I did find it entertaining to be sure but, for me, not as captivating as the Symphony even and the Variations.

All credit to CPO for a growing catalogue of music that rarely is heard outside of Scandinavia and Germany et al. I think there is certainly a need to allow all music of quality to get its due. The performances by the Helsingborg Symphony under Andrew Manze are dedicated and of highest quality and the sound of this SACD surroud recording is very good, indeed.
I rather suspect that Larsson’s music will mostly stay the esoterica that it is but is quite worth your listening.

—Daniel Coombs