Asger Hamerik: The Symphonies, Requiem
Import, Hybrid SACD
|New from||Used from|
Frequently bought together
Customers who bought this item also bought
Randi Stene, mezzo-soprano - Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra - Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Choir - Thomas Dausgaard, direction
Even the most steeped-in-Baltimore-history types might stare blankly at the mention of Asger Hamerik, but the Danish composer played a crucial, longtime role in the city's cultural history. Hamerik arrived in Baltimore in 1871 to become the second director of the still young Peabody Institute, a post he held for 27 years.
During that period, the music conservatory came into its own. Hamerik ushered in tough academic standards. As Ray Robinson's "A History of the Peabody Conservatory of Music" (1969) points out, the director even decreed mandatory class attendance for all students. In an appreciation that ran in The Baltimore Sun in 1928, five years after his death, Hamerik was described as "so rigorous in his standards that in a quarter of a century of his administration at the Peabody, only ten diplomas were awarded. Ten years was the usual time for graduation."
The conservatory drew high praise from several distinguished musical visitors during Hamerik's watch, among them Tchaikovsky and Arthur Sullivan.
The director also won the public's attention and support with a concert series he founded and conducted for many years.
In 1874, The Sun reported, Hamerik "astonished musical America" by presenting a performance with orchestra and a 300-voice choir "devoted to nothing but American music." That seems to have been one of the first all-American classical programs in the country, possibly the first.
It was also through Hamerik's concert series that the Peabody Orchestra introduced Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to Baltimore in 1875, a year after the conservatory director started a Wednesday afternoon recital series that welcomed "unescorted ladies."
Throughout his time in the city, Hamerik regularly led performances of his own music, including the premieres of six of his seven symphonies and his Requiem between 1881 and 1898. Now, thanks to a boxed set of four CDs from Dacapo Records (distributed by Naxos), Hamerik the composer can be rediscovered in a big way.
Some of the composer's pieces have made it onto disc before, but they are likely to be eclipsed by this compendium, featuring handsome performances from the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra and Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Choir, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard (who has guest conducted the Baltimore Symphony in recent years).
It's not that Hamerik is revealed here as some lost symphonic giant. But he does emerge from these recordings as a confident, respectable, often very imaginative composer with a gift for engaging melodies, a keen sense of orchestral coloring and a knack for creating heightened drama or lyrical warmth. His effective use of recurring, unifying motifs is traceable to his friendship with a master of that technique, Hector Berlioz.
While the conventional harmonic progressions or the workmanlike passages in the Dane's symphonies are easy to spot, it's just as easy to overlook such things and simply drink in the directly communicative music, starting with the beguiling, pastoral melody that launches Symphony No. 1. The charming second movement of that symphony seems to provide a foretaste of Grieg's "Peer Gynt" music written several years later.
Hamerik liked to give descriptive French titles to his symphonies. The first is "Symphonie poetique." The second, "Symphonie tragique," lives up to that billing, full of dark themes and vivid strokes. The composer seems to have been in a very Beethoven mood here, for the finale includes an action-stopping oboe solo, as in the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth, and a piccolo fluttering about in the triumphant coda, as in the finale of that Fifth.
There are engaging ideas throughout Hamerik's Third ("Symphonie lyrique"), a little too much bluster in the Fourth ("Symphonie majestueuse"). Symphony No. 5 is as weighty as its title, "Symphonie serieuse," and often exceptionally powerful, nowhere more so than in the involving Adagio. Beethoven rears his head again, this time most obviously in the rhythmic insistence of the Scherzo.
Most persuasive of all is No. 6 ("Symphonie spirituelle"), written for strings alone, because financial constraints forced the suspension of full orchestra concerts at Peabody. This score abounds in distinctive melodic ideas, all beautifully worked out. Although the very end of the score runs out of steam - Hamerik wraps things up too matter-of-factly - the Sixth would still make a particularly strong candidate for revival. I suspect audiences today would take to it instantly.
With Symphony No. 7, the "Choral," Hamerik aimed for the grand statement, but got rather long-winded in the process. The piece certainly has its powerful moments, however, and, aside from a sometimes wobbly mezzo-soprano soloist, the performance is as admirably committed as the others in this set. (The first performance of the work in Baltimore was at the Lyric Opera House in 1898, days after Hamerik left town, having resigned in apparent annoyance over budget cutbacks at the conservatory.)
The Danish choral forces are excellent in the recording of the Seventh; same for the Requiem. That work's premiere drew a standing room-only crowd that included Cardinal James Gibbons in 1895.
The Requiem is imbued with echoes of other composers (the "Tuba mirum" passage begins with a fanfare that comes curiously close to the one in Mendelssohn's "Wedding March"), but Hamerik has original flourishes as well and unleashes genuine drama along the way. In the end, it's a substantial achievement by any measure.
Hearing this hefty dose of Hamerik's music helps bring to life a figure who has slipped into obscurity.
Shortly after his death in 1923, a Sun editorial suggested that "two memorials to Asger Hamerik could appropriately be established in this community which owes him much." One was a plaque, realized in 1925 and mounted at the conservatory outside the entrance to Peabody's main concert hall.
The other memorial, "which he himself would prefer," the Sun editorial said, "would be that his compositions should be more frequently played here. They merit the tribute." -- Baltimore Sun, Tim Smith, December 2009
Top customer reviews
Symphony No. 5 ('Sérieuse', 1889-1891) opens with a slow solemn low string melody punctuated by stentorian brass before moving into an allegro con fuoco main section based on the minor third compass of the opening melody. The Adagio is a lovely Brucknerian hymn dominated by soft brass chords. The Scherzo is an energetic 3/8 movement reminiscent of Beethoven or Schubert but lacking quite their thematic memorability. The fourth movement returns us to the solemnity of the first and is again focused on the minor third motif. Symphony No. 6 ('Spirituelle' 1897) is for strings alone. Some say Hamerik wrote it for strings because of budgetary reasons, others indicate that the Peabody Orchestra's winds were on strike. Whatever the reason for its composition, this symphony is my own personal favorite. The string writing is expert, the themes are memorable, the harmonies are in some ways the most advanced one can hear in this composer's music. One is reminded at times of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, high praise indeed. Further, the Helsingborg Orchestra strings (which is the orchestra playing in Symphonies 1 - 6) are impeccable.
Hamerik's Symphony No. 7 ('Choral', 1906, revised from an 1898 version) was his penultimate composition; he was virtually inactive as a composer for the next seventeen years. The symphony is in three movements -- slow, fast, slow -- and though it begins in a somber D Minor, it ends in a jubilant C Major. The Danish text, written by the composer and his wife, the former Margaret Williams of Tennessee, muses on the journey through life to death. The first and third movements are choral, the second sung by a mezzo-soprano soloist. (This recording's soloist, although musical, has an unsettling lack of control especially in the movement's more dramatic outpourings.) The third movement is a gorgeous and rapturous contemplation of life eternal.
The Requiem (1886-87) was reportedly Hamerik's favorite of his own works. Of all the works here, this is the one in which can mostly plainly hear the influence of Berlioz on Hamerik's work, at least partly because Berlioz's own Requiem was almost certainly used as a model by Hamerik. Particularly in the Dies Irae one can hear a manic, devilish, almost out-of-control Berliozan frenzy. I kept thinking of the 'March to the Scaffold' from the Symphonie Fantastique. Hamerik's use of the brass in the Tuba Mirum is unlike anything else in the music contained in this 4CD set. And scarily daunting it is. In contrast the Requiem et Kyrie is beseeching, rapt. The Offertorio sounds a bit like the same section of Fauré Requiem (but was written a year or so before it). Mezzo Randi Stene sounds much better in this section than in the second movement of Symphony No. 7. The Sanctus begins with exciting trumpet fanfares and then launches into a lively, almost skipping fugal choral passage that is one of the best things in the whole work. The Agnus Dei/Lux Aeterna has the mezzo and chorus comforting us with the promise of redemption of sins and of eternal rest. This is a beautiful work that is, for me, easily the best thing in this set. The Requiem could easily find a welcome place in concerthalls around the world.
The first six symphonies were played by the Helsingborg Symphony in their own concert hall between 1997 and 2000. The Seventh Symphony and the Requiem were performed in the Danish Radio Concert Hall by the Danish National Symphony and Chorus with mezzo-soprano soloist Randi Stene, in 2002 and 2005 respectively. All the performances were conducted by the marvelous Thomas Dausgaard whose work on records I have come to look forward to eagerly. Recorded sound, both in stereo and in SACD, is wonderfully lifelike. (All four of these SACDs have been, and remain, available singly here at Amazon, but at full price. This 4CD set, however, is at mid-price.)