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8.555001 - BERWALD: Piano Trios Nos. 1-3

Franz Berwald (1796-1868): Piano Trios Nos. 1-3

The Swedish composer Franz Berwald was the most distinguished of a musical dynasty of German origin. He was born in 1796 in, Stockholm, the son of Christian Friedrich Georg Berwald, a former pupil of Franz Benda in Berlin, who had first moved to Stockholm in 1772. Franz Berwald's younger brother Christian August served as a violinist in the Swedish court orchestra from 1815 and as its leader from 1834 to 1861. He himself had followed family tradition as a violinist, taught by his father, and was a member of the court orchestra from 1812 until 1828. He also appeared as a soloist and in 1819 toured Finland and Russia on a concert tour with his brother. Meanwhile he was winning something of a reputation as a composer, in particular with a symphony, now partly lost, and a violin concerto that followed earlier works for violin and orchestra.

In 1829 Berwald at last found the necessary patronage for study abroad and moved to Berlin, where he took lessons in counterpoint, but at the same time developed an interest in medicine. The early 1830s found him occupied abortively with operatic composition, but in 1835 he opened his own orthopedic institute, an enterprise that enjoyed some success over the next six years, until he decided in 1841 to sell the institute and move to Vienna. There he continued to pursue his medical interests, while turning his attention to a new opera, his tenth attempt at the form Estrella de Soria. In 1842 there was a successful concert of his music, after which he returned once more to Stockholm, where he hoped for similar success.

Now devoting his fuller attention to composition, Berwald completed his four surviving symphonies, but failed to achieve a favourable hearing either for the first of these or for two operettas that he had staged. In 1846 he returned to Vienna, where critics valued his gifts, as elsewhere in Austria and Germany and in 1847 he was elected a member of the Salzburg Mozarteum, a recognition of his distinction. Three years later financial pressure brought a return to provincial Stockholm once more, but his unsuccessful attempts to find musical employment either as a conductor of the court orchestra or at the University of Uppsala now led to a further change of direction and in 1850 he became manager of a glass factory at Sandö, in the north of the country, later extending his commercial interests to include a sawmill. Winter visits to Stockholm were still possible and he was able to continue his association with music in particular with the composition of chamber music. By 1859 he had settled again in Stockholm, returning to a musical career. In 1862 his opera Estrella de soria was staged with some success and two years later he completed his last opera, Drottningen av Golconda (‘The Queen of Golconda’). At last he had begun to earn a measure of public recognition, with membership of the Swedish Royal Academy and the eventual, if at first disputed, appointment to a professorship He died in Stockholm in 1868.

Keith Anderson

The earliest of Berwald's five trios for violin, cello and piano the Piano Trio in C major, dates from 1845 and is still unpublished The next three were published in Hamburg between 1852 and 1854 as Nos. 1, 2 and 3. A fifth trio, again in C major, was published posthumously in Copenhagen in 1896 as No 4. It was composed during the same period as Nos. 1, 2 and 3, but more specific dating is not possible. Generally speaking, Berwald's chamber music is melodically and harmonically more chromatic than his orchestral works, and that has been attributed to two factors. One is the exposure to opera during his years in the orchestra pit, and the other is a direct influence from Spohr, whose music Berwald must have known quite well, but the composer with whom he shares the greatest kinship in the trios is Mendelssohn. As an experienced string player Berwald wrote idiomatically for the violin and the cello, but balancing them with the piano presented problems that few composers after Beethoven and Schubert have resolved with total success Berwald seemed largely part unaware of the expressive developments of piano writing during the first half of the nineteenth century, and the brilliant style of Moscheles and Hummel remained his model.

Trio No. 1 in E flat major was composed in the autumn of 1849. Its first movement, Allegro con brio, is perhaps the most perfectly realised of all Berwalds trio movements. There is an admirable balance and interplay of the instruments. Trills and pizzicato effects lend colour, and the lilting first subject, suggesting the writing of the young Sibelius, establishes a Nordic tone rare in Berwald's music. A bridge passage based on the first subject leads directly into the Andante grazioso, a slow movement marked by simplicity and lyrical charm. The finale, Allegro spiritoso quasi presto, follows without pause and recalls Mendelssohn in its fleetness.

If the first trio is arguably the finest, the second is the most problematic, exhibiting those qualities regarded as weaknesses in his chamber music. Fortunately they are concentrated in the first movement, where the excessive repetition of rhythmic and melodic motifs and difficulties with instrumental balance obscure the Beethovenian dramatic climate that may have been Berwald's intention. The driving initial theme curiously gives way to a scherzo-like subsidiary idea in the first group, and a whimsical figure punctuates the lyrical second subject as well Any sense of ennui that this Allegro molto movement may engender is quickly dispelled by subsequent events. The Allegro passes without break into the Larghetto, a fairly conventional slow movement at fist but one that grows into a grotesque cortege. There follows allowing movement in triple time marked Scherzo – Molto allegro, though its character seems more appropriate to a finale. It is a fine movement in the spirit of Mendelssohn, and it indeed turns out to be the finale, with a coda that compresses a restatement of the first movement into a mere 65 bars.

The second trio was finished in March 1851 and the third followed in December of that year. Fine melodic inspiration marks the flowing Allegro non molto, which ha, an overall mood of serenity, coloured by imaginative instrumental writing. There are many point, of interest in the Adagio quasi largo, which follows without a break. Here a simple melody given to the strings is underpinned by the piano in a most unorthodox way that uses the shortest note values to produce a strumming effect. Without pause the Allegro molto finale begins with one of those propulsive, wonderfully quirky themes that no one but Berwald could have conceived A slower, folk like episode intervenes, and later the theme returns in a fleeting reference that end, a truly original work in a no less remarkable fashion.

David Nelson

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