Rosenberg Symphony no. 2, op. 62 ‘Sinfonia Grave’

performed by the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert Blomstedt, available on Spotify

(cover image by Eleni Afiontzi)

Rosenberg’s second symphony dates from 1934, and we have what I perceive to be a similar situation with the quartets. The second quartet was written shortly after the first revision of the first string quartet, which leads me to believe that it was something of a return to the form, a fresh effort in the genre.

The same seems to be the case here. The first symphony was completed in 1919, and first revised in 1932, with the second symphony following only two years later. I could be wrong, but the dates did get my attention. As we shall see, though, the work’s gestation was a bit longer than that.

In the interim between the two symphonies, Rosenberg had written quite a lot, (almost 60 published works) including the violin concerto from Tuesday, the trumpet concerto, an incomplete piano concerto, a number of orchestral suites, a third string quartet, the last three of his four piano sonatas, and other chamber works.

Naxos does not have their typical ‘about this recording’ information online, but they thankfully did have a scan of the back of this album, which has some notes in both Swedish and English (although the English is missing a few sentences). The album quotes the composer as follows:

The first version was ready in 1928, I believe and should then be performed by the Concert Association. But when I heard it during the rehearsals I became frightened. Frightened because of the roads I have taken–the tonal language was, for me and for Swedish music at the time, daring and harshly polyphonic. The symphony was kept on the shelves for several years. I did not quite dare to take up the struggle with the material. It was not completed until 1935.

The work is in three movements, as follows, with a playing time of around 34 minutes:

  1. Allegro energico
  2. Poco adagio – allegro assai –  poco allegro – allegro assai
  3. Allegro risoluto

The Swedish notes from the link above, without my actually looking words up, says (as can be deduced from the above tempo markings) that the outer movements are fast movements, and the central movement, “en långsam centrumsats,” has “ett insprängt och ett avslutande scherzoartat parti,” something about a final scherzo part. We’ll get there.

The overwhelming sense from the first movement is a kind of Russian influence, or at least something quite exotic, but maybe because it’s just… different, uncharted. Perhaps this is just from the composer’s mention of ‘roads,’ but the music feels like new terrain. The music is percussive, militaristic, and colorful. Assuming this first movement is in some kind of sonata form, what follows the mighty climax of the first section is a surprisingly intimate, almost pastoral chamber passage of intertwining solos. It seems removed enough from the previous material that it almost suggests a complete change of venue, cutting to a scene off the battlefield, far enough away that it can’t even be heard. That same commanding brass climax is repeated to bring this movement to its expected conclusion, but in a sort of unstably powerful way.

The second movement is nearly as long as the first (and the same can be said for the third, actually), but as can be seen from the four tempo markings, it packs quite a lot into that space. Without even listening, we can see that there are two slower passages (one faster than the other), punctuated by two faster passages. All of this together makes up a sort of hybrid central movement that serves the purpose of both a slow movement and scherzo, something Kurt Atterberg did in his second symphony two decades before this one was completed, but never in this harmonic language.

Strings begin the movement in the first slow section, and it’s not quite a dirge, but subdued, tender and perhaps the slightest bit melancholy. A flute solo begins and this slowly precipitates the climax that brings on the first ‘allegro assai’ passage, again very Russian sounding, to me. It’s driving, but calms back down for the poco allegro portion before revisiting the scherzo material and ending… playfully?

The finale is what you may expect from a ‘risoluto’ marking. It’s triumphant, stirring, and maybe… this is just entirely my own reading into my perception of the music, but maybe there’s a sense of triumph in finally completing the work. The voice here is a little less Russian, but still ethnic? Slavic? I don’t know.

There are certainly brighter, almost celebratory moments of what sounds rather cinematic, but I also hear a potential underlying Shostakovich-like darkness; I’m not sure whence such an inspiration may come, though. The movement seems to flirt with both triumph and chaos, intimacy and the epic. I find this movement to be the most captivating.

There’s a tighter orchestral sound here than in the violin concerto. There’s much more power generated by the orchestral writing; it sounds more cohesive, and the result is some moments of great force. Perhaps I’m just not familiar enough yet with the piece, but I feel it’s just missing… something, but I’m not sure what. Whatever it may be, it’s certainly not boldness. Rosenberg has that, and hopefully it will continue to serve him well.

That’s all from the Swede that we’ll be seeing for a while, but after this one (since we’ve already done his third, the first thing we ever saw from him on the blog), we’ll jump ahead, at some point, to his enormous fourth symphony… In the meantime, stay tuned for more from the Editor’s Choice series, and thanks so much for reading.

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