Asger Hamerik: The Symphonies
25 November 2009
The Danish composer Asger Hamerik moved to the USA in 1871 following the death of his mentor Hector Berlioz. In the USA he was director of Baltimore's Peabody Institute. The Peabody had an eighty-strong orchestra and a vibrant musical tradition. He stayed with the Peabody for 27 years with summer vacations spent on the seaboard at Chester, Nova Scotia. That was the backdrop for the writing of the symphonies. In America he married, at the age of 51, the 26 year old Margaret Williams. They returned to Denmark in 1898 when the Peabody Institute ceased their orchestral concert series. That same year the couple's son, the composer Ebbe Hamerik was born. After living the gypsy life they settled in Copenhagen in 1900 where Asger died in 1923 at the age of 80. His oeuvre includes four operas, seven symphonies and a series of Nordic Suites.
Dacapo turn in blazingly confident performances of his most ambitious choral-orchestral works: the last Symphony and the Requiem. Each is spectacular in scale and subject matter. They address the eternal verities; the first title of the Seventh Symphony was Life, Death and Immortality. Each savours of Berlioz but the music-making has a confidence that defeats any fear that he is a mere epigone. This is music for the grandest spaces. Rhythmic, antiphonal and other spatial effects abound and add to the deeply impressive impact of these pieces.
The Seventh Symphony was first completed in 1898 but revised several times until 1906. The words are by the composer and his wife. Fascinating that the markings for the three movements belie what you hear. The Largo starts with a call to worship; one that cannot be ignored. The music is blazing and impetuous; splendid in thrust and retort. It has a strikingly Berlioz-like vehemence and smoking intensity relieved by some verdantly Verdian reflections. There were also a few moments that anticipate Delius in their Elysian contours. The wonderful repose carries over into the Andante Sostenuto with its idyllic and heart-easing peacefulness (try 5:12 onwards). The finale is marked Grave and again radiates a strong tranquil atmosphere: a sturdy yet suave benediction. This contrasts with some rampantly exultant writing reminiscent of Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony. Very satisfying and stirring.
The Requiem has been recorded before. You can find it on a Kontrapunkt double CD set reviewed here. That version was conducted by the redoubtable Ole Schmidt. It's a recording to be reckoned with but is outfaced by a Dacapo's splendid recording and performance as well as an even more compelling coupling. Its Requiem et kyrie radiates a sense of warming grandeur and ineffable strength. Compare this with the ragingly potent Dies irae with its romping vitality. The Dies irae plainchant is heard in orchestra and in the choir. This is sung and played with commanding verve and imperious hauteur. Listen to the almost forbidding unanimity of the choir and the Berliozian crump and groan of the tuba and trombones - almost a malediction. It is as if the brass writing has escaped from the March to the Scaffold from the Symphonie Fantastique. This is apocalyptic and majestic writing. Hamerik resorts, during this extended Dies Irae movement, to sonorous Verdian cantilena (3:12) before the return of the more volcanic writing at 13:17. The following Offertorium sounds similar to Fauré while in the Sanctus the trumpets ring out as if at the opening of the Seven Seals. The writing for the choir is dancing and fugal - the impression being of trailing clouds of glory across a Turner sunset. The concluding Agnus Dei has a smiling Dvorákian curvature. Randi Stene is in calming voice and the final words Requiescant in pace and Amen roundedly confer a final sleep.
All six of the orchestra-only symphonies are in four movements. The First (Poétique) is sturdy, emphatic and cross-cut with powerful currents from Schumann and Beethoven. While the third movement certainly finds a radiant poetry the gruff energy of Beethoven Seven and Schumann Four shake the rafters in the remaining movements. The whirling string writing may remind you on occasion of Tchaikovsky (Hamlet) and Berlioz (Le Corsair). The Second Symphony is the longest of the symphonies. It is dedicated to Wagner's patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. It has a graver and more imperious mien than its predecessor relieved somewhat by the heavily skipping Allegro marcato (III). The finale has a blood-drained exhaustion about it reminiscent of the finale of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique blended with a grand Berliozian anger. The Third Symphony is the Lyrique. It is swept with the wildness of heart of Berlioz married up with inspiration from the Mendelssohn overtures (Ruy Blas, Athalie) and Schumann (Julius Caesar). Lyrical ideas fly through the second movement like will-o-the-wisps while the third is more tragic in atmosphere. All clouded skies are banished for the finale with its cheery rolling gait - close perhaps to Mendelssohn's Scotch Symphony. The Fourth - known as the Symphonie majestueuse - lives up to its title. This is especially in the outer movements but is sustained even in the flute-initiated intimacies of its Adagio espressivo. During his lifetime it was the most performed of his symphonies in Denmark. The Fifth Symphony Sérieuse is a classic illustration not only of Hamerik's melodic quality but also of his gifted way with dynamics. The invention is fluent but is attractively fibrous and memorable - not least in the Beethovenian effervescence of the Scherzo (III) and the Egmont-darkness of the finale. The latter is completed by lightning-striking magnificence. The Sixth Symphony Spirituelle is for a massed string orchestra. The writing is emphatic and inventive. It variously recalls/foreshadows fine moments from Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, Elgar's Introduction and Allegro and Bridge's Suite for Strings. The feathery-poetry of Berlioz puts in guest appearances amid ideas that flow like honey and sweep by in mercurial parturition.
Dacapo do their usual truly outstanding job in documenting these discs. The booklet runs to 48 pages of which the English notes run to eight pages. The sung texts and their translations are given. The author is Knud Ketting.
The symphonies are also available as individual discs: 8.224076 (Symphonies 1-2); 8.224088 (Symphonies 3-4); 8.224161 (Symphonies 5-6); and 8.226033 (Choral; Requiem).
I do hope that Dacapo's next box in this series will be Holmboe's complete string quartets. They have the recordings in their back catalogue and the project itself has great and attractive merit.
The present CDs have been recorded in cooperation with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and are exemplary in every way. The box has been designed so that as it fold open the discs, each in their own wallet-integral segment rise up with the booklet accommodated in the final envelope. The CDs themselves each appear to be made of a slightly sturdier thickness of disc than usual. This is similar to the equally admirable Langgaard symphony set from the same company. Hamerik was no Langgaard but he had a most gifted faculty that delivers symphonies that reward the attentive listener.