Asger Hamerik: Symphonies 5-6
17 January 2002
Classics Today (10/10)
Victor Carr Jr.
Although Danish composer Asger Hamerik (1843-1923) studied with fellow Danes Niels Gade and J.P.E. Hartmann, it's his years with Hector Berlioz that left the most impact on his 1891 Fifth Symphony, the "Symphony sérieuse". A stern motto theme composed of rising and falling minor thirds on a dactylic rhythm (think of the theme from the old "Gigantor" cartoon with two extra first notes) opens the dramatic first movement and dominates the rest of the symphony. The music adopts a typically Berliozian pattern of motivic development along with other features of that composer's orchestral style, with plenty of blustering brass passages. Of course, by 1891 Hamerik had been exposed to more than Berlioz, and there are occasional hints of Dukas (the rhythmically descending flute chords from the Symphony in C's first movement), as well as an overall emotional cast similar to Franck's D minor. But you never lose the sense of listening to an original and finely wrought work bursting with excitement.
Hamerik composed his Symphonie spirituelle (Symphony No. 6) in 1897 near the end of his long tenure as director of the Peabody Institute in Baltimore (1871-98). Scored for string orchestra, the work is similar in texture and tenor to that of a string serenade (in fact, the descending-scale theme in both the first and last movements brings Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings immediately to mind). Yet, despite this lyric spirit, Hamerik's compositional rigor certainly qualifies the work as a symphony, and a quite enjoyable one at that. You won't find any argument on that point from Thomas Dausgaard and his Helsingborg musicians, who clearly are enjoying themselves as they turn out smashing performances of both works. (The brass really rip in the Fifth, making me wonder what the Chicago Symphony would do with this piece.) Topping off this production is Dacaapo's clear, solid, dynamic recorded sound. Of the numerous 19th-century symphonies floating to the surface in recent years, Hamerik's are among the most likely to stick around. They truly belong in the repertoire of major orchestras, and most certainly deserve a place in your CD collection.