Nystroem: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 6 / Andersson, Malmo Symphony

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This is BIS's third installment of orchestral music by Gösta Nystroem, and I have to confess that it got lost in the shuffle when it first arrived for review. That was my mistake. Nystroem was a splendid composer, and the previous two releases both were excellent, as is this one. These two symphonies have much in common musically, including Nystroem's habit of beginning a movement in silence, with a slowly building threnody scored principally for high strings, followed by quicker episodes. If this sounds formulaic, it's not. First of all, Nystroem was extremely good at this sort of thing, and second, the two works are quite different in terms of structure. The Fourth Symphony has three movements and is based on incidental music to Shakespeare's The Tempest, while the Sixth and last symphony follows an original two-movement plan, each of its parts containing highly contrasting material in varying tempos.

Nystroem's orchestration also is very colorful and effective. His evocative use of high strings to open many of his individual movements should not blind us to the fact that he was very much a composer for the whole orchestra. This means full sonorities, plentiful use of winds, brass, and percussion, and beautifully judged, fluid textures. Although there are plenty of good tunes, Nystroem was not a melodist in the conventional sense. But his basic sonorities always fall gratefully on the ear, and his driving rhythms in quicker music produce a great deal of physical excitement. In short, this is really good, solid, characterful symphonic writing, and the performances give the full measure of each work. The only possible missing ingredient might be a bit more assertiveness from the brass at the big climaxes, but I can't imagine anyone being dissatisfied with either the interpretations or the vivid sound.

--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com

This premiere release of the two remaining unrecorded symphonies of the half-dozen by the singular Swede Gösta Nyström (1890–1966) represents for this writer the fulfillment of a long-cherished wish list.

Together with Hilding Rosenberg (1892–1985) and Allan Pettersson (1911–1980), Nystroem stands at the pinnacle of Swedish music during the 20th century. His sui generis expressionistic voice (which sounds like no other) seems to embody the brooding but aloof Swedish soul in sound. Spiritually speaking, his only significant parallel, perhaps because of his dozen years of study and experience in Paris, could be that of the Swiss Arthur Honegger. Although Nystroem was an occasional painter—as well as a music critic—and thus quite concerned with questions of orchestral color, there is nothing especially pictorial about his music.

His intensely direct and dramatic idiom—a very personal blend of post-Impressionism and post-Romantic elements—gave rise to some of the most emotionally raw and vulnerable-sounding music of the modern period. Beginning in 1931 with the Sinfonia breve, which was followed shortly by the Sinfonia espressiva for string orchestra, in the late 1940s Nystroem wrote the sublime Sinfonia del mare (“Sea Symphony”), probably his masterpiece in the form; then in 1952 this Fourth Symphony, subtitled “Sinfonia Shakespeariana” followed by the Sinfonia seria in 1963, and finally by the posthumously premiered sixth and last, “Sinfonia tramontana” in 1966. (There is also an unnumbered Sinfonia concertante for cello and orchestra from the 1940s.) All six vary in length from 20 to 30 minutes.

Even though he utilizes a very distinctive blend of modal-diatonic and intermittently very chromatized dissonance—in fact, some of his themes are close to atonal but still lyrically graspable—Nyström’s language is never convoluted or forbidding. He always addresses the listener very forthrightly on a level of almost painfully naked subjectivity. The guiding principal of his work is one of extreme contrast or energetic conflict: in just a single measure or two, he can veer from a threatening tone of violent relentlessness to a piercingly short-lived moment of tenderness, but his basic background is one of unrelieved lugubriousness. He often writes in large instrumental blocks, pitting strings as a group against winds or brasses, with the timpani always closely on call. Formally, the symphonies vary from the single-movement Sinfonia breve to the five interrelated sections of the Sinfonia del mare, but the thematic materials are often derived from a single generating motivic source.

The Fourth Symphony, though subtitled “Shakespeariana,” does not quote from any of the rather functional though appealing incidental scores he wrote for The Tempest and The Merchant of Venice. The Shakespeare reference is probably meant to evoke a sense of tragic humanity that pervades the three movements. As in most of the symphonies, the outer Allegro movement begins as a barely audible Lento before bursting out into full force; at the center, it suddenly drops into an unexpected, secluded oasis of sad serenity before plunging back into its initial turbulence. By the same token, the midpoints of many of his slow movements erupt into quick passages of savage agitation, even though the same or similar themes are present in both modalities.

The Sixth or “Tramontana” Symphony (the subtitle carries an implication of a visionary statement coming from beyond the range of everyday life) is a kind of transcendental diptych, with two panels of almost equal length following the same characteristic expressive arc of Lento–Allegro–Lento (or Andante). In the symphony’s concluding measures, Nystroem attempts a grand resolution, but to these ears the sorrowful reverberations win out.

B. Tommy Andersson offers splendidly charged and maintained readings of these almost schizoid works; he is always careful not to let Nyström’s multiple lines and towering climaxes get out of hand. Typically, the dynamic spectrum of BIS’s engineering is so unusually wide that only the best reproduction equipment will be able to do justice to its shattering power. In short, a major addition to the 20th century Scandinavian symphonic discography.

Paul A. Snook, FANFARE

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: BIS-CD-1082

  • UPC: 7318590010822

  • Label: BIS

  • Composer: Gösta Nyström

  • Conductor: B. Tommy Andersson

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Malmö Symphony Orchestra