Ludvig Norman: Symphony no. 2 in E flat, op. 40

performed by the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra under Hans-Peter Frank

Another symphony in E flat!

Fredrik Vilhelm Ludvig Norman was born on 28 August 1831 in Stockholm, beginning his musical training with Lindblad, from last week. However, he also studied at the Leipzig Conservatory, where he met Robert Schumann. He was there from 1848 to 1852, after Mendelssohn had already died, but the tradition of Swedes studying in Germany seems to have stuck. He returned to Sweden to become a professor at the Royal Academy of Stockholm, as well as holding some solid conducting posts. Wiki makes note that he was perhaps most famous as a conductor for premiering Berwald’s fourth and final symphony, the one we discussed a few days ago. He himself wrote four symphonies (Wiki says so while only listing three), a few piano trios, six string quartets, a sextet, a quintet, viola sonata, and other chamber music stuff. He died in 1885 in his hometown.

Wikipedia says that “Together with Franz Berwald and Adolf Fredrik Lindblad, he ranks among the most important Swedish symphonists of the 19th century.” And well he should, judging from today’s work, as well as a piano trio, piano sextet and the second symphony that didn’t make this month’s roster. But there’s a slight difference I think you’ll notice between Norman’s symphony and the other two works of this week, the Berwald, and the upcoming one on Friday.

I am curious about the situation surrounding many of his compositions because it’s difficult to get my hands on details of the works and the dates of composition seem iffy at best: he began to work on them and set them aside or something, because many have ‘finished’ dates long after the ‘began’ date or date published.

To be honest, for a handful of composers in this series, it was difficult to pick only one work. Berwald’s third symphony was also an enjoyable listen and one I could have just as easily written about, but the fourth won, not only because it is an astonishingly vivid work, but also because it was premiered by Norman. Lindblad’s first got a performance under Mendelssohn’s baton, and today… Norman’s other symphonies were strong contenders, but the recording of the second is of much higher quality, in my opinion, and as you’ll see if you dig around, there aren’t many recordings of these works on the shelves, so we have to take what we’re given.

It might be that the first or third symphonies of Norman are of greater or more enduring quality than the second, but what I feel we have here is a softer, more rounded-out, perhaps more mellowed symphony than either of the other two for this week. That’s not a criticism. The symphonies that bookend this one for the week are vibrant and vivid and full of stunning color and passion. Norman’s work comes along at later in life than, say, Lindblad’s first, which he wrote when he was around 30. The work scheduled for Friday was written when the composer was 33. Berwald’s fourth was written at 49, but Norman penned his second at 40. It sounds like a more mature symphony, one with depth and passion, but more subdued, an understated vibrance, one that slowly reveals itself rather than bowling you over.

And I’m completely fine with that. It’s more like Brahms’ second or third than first or fourth.

And I’d say actually that this work sounds perhaps more German than any of those that we’ve discussed so far. The first movement opens quietly, not with a bang, but a warm, rich swell of orchestral sound that quickly gains depth and builds a landscape. While it doesn’t bowl one over with liveliness or sunshine, it’s really very beautiful, and I hate to use words like ‘bucolic’ and ‘pastoral’ so much, but there’s a refreshing crispness to the orchestral lines Norman gives us in the opening bars, like hills rolling off into the distance as far as the eye can see.

But it’s not just pretty hills and greenery. There’s some contrast, like when the low strings give an answer to these brighter phrases toward the end of the opening passage, leading into a much more lyrical theme to give us the content for the first movement, nostalgia, warmth, comfort, but never sappy or mushy. It feels well-constructed, as if soft curves and supple textures carved out of a rich hardwood. We don’t have an exposition repeat, instead moving straight into a development that’s less conflict and storm than a weaving together of two different fabrics for a landscape that has luscious strings, beautiful(ly played) trumpet calls, music that tells you to lay back and enjoy. The finale reaches a wonderful, bronzy, warm climax with horn calls and a full-bodied triumphant sound that would just as easily serve as the end of the entire work.

The second movement is both a continuation and a contrast, working the more lyrical, broad, delicate angle that the first movement touched on. It’s exquisite slow-movement writing. There are exposed (maybe even solo) passages that show restraint and quaintness, the kind of writing that would be very effective in the concert hall, contrasted with nearly indescribable beauty of majestic fanfare of brass punctuated by the timpani, underpinned by beautiful strings. It’s breathtaking, but the kind of thing you have to be ready to appreciate. It’s not going to grab you by the lapels and shake you into listening submission, but it is (slightly more) subtly stunning. Wholly comforting, satisfying music here.

Obviously then, we have the scherzo next, something crunchier against the softer palate of the second movement’s warm, rounded finish. It’s more spirited, a more blustery triple-meter movement, but still not quite hard-edged, and the trio is quite pleasant, soft, nothing to write home about. The scherzo returns for a more swashbuckling-type close to the movement, as is to be expected, and I think while it’s nice, it’s the least eventful of the movements.

The finale comes in with a slightly less than thunderous entry, but enough to be bold and attention getting. Its main subject reminds us of the first movement, and the brass calls to mind the fanfare of the second, but instead of warm, stately majesty, its more triumphant, just a tinge celebratory, while still more subdued, with horn solos that aren’t alpine calls, like waves quietly lapping the shore, not thunderous, but still with depth and power. The symphony overall is a quieter kind of expression, again calling Brahms to mind, but with a touch of the charm and subtle lyricism of Schubert, maybe, without sounding really anything like Schubert. After all, this is 1871, a few years before Bruckner’s third and fourth symphonies greeted the world, and a half a decade before Brahms’ second that I keep saying it sounds like. This is full-on Romantic Era music, people, but it has a subtlety and restraint that I find very handsome.

Things liven up a bit for the end of the symphony. We get a few swells of sound, and some quieter corners, but the ending is ultimately broad, majestic, and warm, with a handsome rallentando. But wait, that’s not the actual end. We get a coda, which again turns quiet, and the stately, handsome procession of fanfare and celebration is extended until Norman decides is enough. A bit longer for my taste, but still enjoyable.

The overall feel of this work, again, while not striking or rattling or overwhelmingly powerful, is one of handsome subtlety, restraint, and warm, rich majesty. I find myself listening to either of Brahms’ middle symphonies less than the first or fourth; the first is a bold, youthful work that grabs the symphonic bull by the horns, and the fourth is a graceful, incredibly deep work of stunning genius. The middle two are wonderful in their own ways, but I find especially the second to be a softer listen, and Normal constructs a similar work here. It may take a few listens to appreciate, but it’s like a fine whiskey, a delicate one, nothing that will knock your socks off, but fragrant, easy to enjoy once you’ve come to appreciate its myriad virtues.

This is the quieter installment for the week, but one to be relished as well. Friday’s post is a stunning work that bored itself so far into my head when I was preparing the article that I spent days humming its opening bars. So stay tuned and be careful for that. It’s a really phenomenal symphony. Ha en bra dag!

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