Edvin Kallstenius: Symphony no. 2 in Fm, op. 20

performed by the Sveriges Radios Symfoniorkester under B. Tommy Andersson

This is a piece I had to make room for in the schedule, because I came across the Kallstenius name very late in my research, and he seems completely unrelated to anyone else in the classical music world. He didn’t take lessons from any of the other names (that I could find), didn’t work with anyone of note, but what I heard of his was beyond noteworthy.

Edvin Kallstenius was born 29 August 1881 in Filipstad. (Even the Swedish article is sparse on details, so there’s not a lot to share). He originally studied science at Lund University but decided to pursue music, and spent some time in Leipzig, from 1904-07 under one Stephen Krehl, a German composer whose only ‘important pupil’ is listed in Wikipedia as Pablo Sorozábal. The German article does list Kallstenius, but doesn’t say under whom Krehl himself studied, just that he spent time in Leipzig and Dresden.

Back to Kallstenius, though. The Swedish article says he was “awakened musically” by Beethoven and Schubert but that hearing an opera of Franz Schreker. His published works reach 63 opus numbers, including five symphonies, eight quartets, chamber music, a few sinfoniettas, and more. Kallstenius spent almost 30 years as librarian at the Swedish radio, but was also a music critic and writer. I haven’t any idea on any of the other details of the trajectory of his career or how he managed to be(come) so obscure (or if he always was).

He’s mentioned as one of Sweden’s earliest modernists, and died in 1967 at the age of 86. Today’s work dates from 1935. There is (unsurprisingly) precious little about this work online, so no going and downloading a score, or even program notes, so there’s not much to work from, but I came across this name (and the above video) and was instantly impressed by what I heard, not so much because it was the most stunning music I had ever heard, but because it was very compelling music I’d never heard of. Kallstenius is a name that I’d never even come across, and again, there are naysayers who’d argue there’s a reason for his neglect, but does it hurt to have a listen? The work is in three movements:

Mov.I: Allegro 00:00
Mov.II: Adagio 15:43
Mov.III: Allegro ben ritmico 27:01

The work gives the impression that it will begin commandingly, but it presents an interesting tapestry of coolness, warmth, grayness, spaciousness and density. That seeming-commanding opening comes from brass, and clarinet begins a line that introduces the rest of the woodwinds. There’s something about this opening that is to me, for some reason, absolutely gripping. There are solo passages from violin, flute, and brass that establish what sounds to me like a sort of ethereal, wintry landscape, one that borders on harsh, but is still richly beautiful and vibrant.

Wait for the entrance, then, of the oboe. It feels like a very obvious change of mood, and introduces the most tender, lyrical music we’ve had so far. After this the music feels like it has direction, is moving somewhere instead of just building a landscape (which I didn’t mind). There’s a sense of unity in the reappearance of the clarinet solo at the end of this section, and things tie back together, but there’s no big swelling full-orchestra melody to sweep you off your feet. There’s always an undercurrent in the music of something potentially darker just under the surface, but it maintains interest. The colorful orchestration and building of atmosphere and texture are compelling. The first movement makes use of the motifs and building blocks in what I’d describe as subtle but compelling ways, and gives us a powerful conclusion to the movement that takes up nearly half of the work.

The adagio begins by creating another very interesting soundscape. This music reminds me, in some way or other, of symphonies from the Soviet Union around the same time: there’s a lyricism and a spaciousness, but also a sparseness, a slight cold hardness about it. However, the adagio sets a bit of that aside, and gives us a spacious, ethereal, very human, tender movement, but without its own (quieter) growls and dissonances here and there. I feel like everything in this work shows what a craftsman Kallstenius was. You may not like what he crafts, but if nothing else, the final few minutes of the adagio are breathtaking, and the man admittedly knows how to write.

The finale is by far the shortest movement of the work, marked allegro ben ritmico. It’s immediately the crunchiest of what we’ve heard so far, a commanding march-like beginning, almost military. It, too, is compelling music, and feels like what everything up to this point has built toward. I’d love to have a look at the score, or read program notes or something, to try to discern what it is about this music that I find so engaging, so unique. There’s a transparency, a fantastic use of tension, or perhaps rather suspense, in that the music always feels like it’s building, without ever giving away all its secrets, as if it has something very important to say, but takes its time to do so without ever losing momentum.

There are the slightest tinges of Holst’s Mars in some of the more aggressive brassy elements in this march-like movement, and it’s the most straightforward, as if it’s all come to a head, finally ready to finish what it started. I don’t know, but there’s something about the work that I find gripping. It reminds me here and there of a unique language somewhere between that of Sibelius and Myaskovsky, if that helps at all. I feel I can’t say much terribly intelligent about it, except to encourage you to go listen to it and see what you think. I’ve had a listen to as much of Kallstenius’ other music as I can get my hands on, and it too is unique and interesting.

As little as I’ve said about this work, it was the last piece to be added to the month’s program, and I had to work it in. It took a bit of doing, but there’s something about this piece that is compelling, powerful, engaging, richly expressive, but also quite unique, and I had to find a way to work it in. Please do go listen to it, as it was a surprise discovery for this series, and one I was glad to have found.

Stay tuned for the last work of this week on Friday and our upcoming last Swedish Saturday and Sunday before our September Series says so long. Tillfredag… 

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