LARS-ERIK LARSSON: Symphony No. 1, Four Vignettes to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Music for Orchestra, Pastorale for small orchestra, Lyric Fantasy for small orchestra—Helsingborg Sym. Orch./Andrew Manze—CPO multichannel SACD 777671-2, 76:06, [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Classical LP collectors might remember a 1972 recording of Larsson’s Pastoral Suite coupled with Dag Wiren’s String Serenade by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Stig Westerberg. That was Lars-Erik Larsson’s (1908-86) most popular work, and this is volume one of a new series his orchestral works. Although all the works on this CD are in a late Romantic style (except the Music for Orchestra), Larsson moved effortlessly between many musical styles in his career. He studied with Alban Berg and his Ten Two-Part Piano Pieces of 1932 was the first 12-tone music written in Sweden. Yet most of his works were “a musicianly stance of free tonality and dissonant counterpoint, borne by a neo-baroque kinetic thrust,” writes program annotator Christolph Scluren. Larsson was a versatile musician, writing numerous film scores, composing, conducting and producing programs for Swedish radio, and teaching in several academic institutions.
His Symphony No. 1 is a neo-Romantic work influenced by Sibelius and Nielsen. It’s a sunny piece full of the fervor of youth, with considerable mastery of counterpoint, melody and orchestration. The bucolic and ingratiatingly scored scherzo and a high spirited finale make this work a delight to hear. Four Vignettes to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (1937-8) is the second of twelve theatre scores. It continues the easygoing, melodic, and pastoral style of the First Symphony. Also included is the Pastorale from Larsson’s first theatre score, Chastity, by Vilhelm Moberg, which he extracted and became a popular concert performance piece.
The most interesting work on this CD is Music for Orchestra (1950), which shows Larsson’s flirtation with a more modern idiom. The emotional landscape is somewhat apprehensive; dissonance is present but not dominant. In the second section, the melodies are austere, and the mood is sadly elegiac. It’s as if the innocence of Larsson’s youth has been tempered by his encounter with postwar modernists and the devastating effect of World War II. The energetic third section reminded me of the finale of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, with the same kind of vibrancy that ends Bartok’s masterpiece.
The Lyric Fantasy for Small Orchestra (1967) ends this CD the way it began: full-fledged neo-Romanticism. It’s very beautiful, and could be written by Grieg, or more appropriately, fellow Swedish composers Dag Wiren, Hugo Alfven, or Kurt Atterberg. But don’t let the perspective of musical historians—always extolling the next new musical innovation—prevent you from enjoying the music on this album. It’s a fresh country breeze—the perfect antidote to a day in the urban jungle. After all, after the serialists pushed music to it atonal limits, Romanticism became the next new thing. The Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra plays well and the SACD sound is lush and inviting.