Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Email Password  
Not a subscriber yet?  
Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Mark Swed
Los Angeles Times, September 2010

The indefatigable Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard, having recorded Rued Langgaard’s 16 flamboyantly neo-Romantic 20th century symphonies, turns to another neglected, and I think more interesting, Danish symphonist, with a lovingly boxed set of Asger Hamerick’s seven symphonies and Requiem. Hamerik, who was born in 1843, studied in Paris with Berlioz and wound up in Baltimore in 1871, heading the Peabody Institute for 27 years. There he wrote his symphonies and married an American student half his age.

Many of his symphonies were, in fact, premiered in Baltimore, which is a forgotten factoid of American musical history. But Hamerick’s fame mainly remained in Denmark. The first six symphonies have French titles (“Poétique,” “Tragique,” “Lyrique,” etc.). The last is a choral symphony with a text exalting life and welcoming death. These are works of generous spirit, melodies spilling out, harmonies going in slightly unusual places, pleasing to the ear and spirit. They are of their time, gorgeously played and warmly recorded by the Danish label DaCapo.

Guy Rickards
Gramophone, February 2010

The complete symphonic output of a long-forgotten Danish master

There was a time when Asger Hamerik (born Hammerich in 1843) was the best-known Danish composer after Gade. For 27 years director of Baltimore’s Peabody Institute, Hamerik had been a pupil of von Bülow and Berlioz, occasionally deputising on the podium for the latter in his declining years. The Requiem (1886–87) confirms Berlioz’s influence, whether in the conflation of the “Requiem aetemam” and “Kyrie eleison” or use of the “Dies irae” plainchant in the movement of the same name. A rather fine piece, derivative perhaps, it occupies expressive ground between the light of Fauré and the drama of Verdi.

Hamerik was an experienced composer of operas and orchestral works when he came to write his First Symphony (see Knud Ketting’s notes for the curiosities over its completion date). Attractive but structurally naive in places, a lesson not learnt in its successor, the still conservative Third (1883–84) is more imaginative in this respect though there seems little difference expressively between the First’s Poétique and Third’s Lyrique; the Second (1882–83) is more dramatique than Tragique. With No 4 (1888–89), dedicated to King Christian IX of Denmark, his style deepened into the “grand manner” that Havergal Brian noted in Musical Opinion in 1936 (reprinted in Brian on Music, Vol 2—see page 102). It is not hard to see why this was his most popular symphony in Denmark.

Titling his Fifth (1889–91) Symphonie sérieuse brings inevitable comparisons with Berwald, not to Hamerik’s benefit. The Sixth for strings alone, however, is an unqualified masterpiece, exalted and dignified in tone, a delight to play and listen to—no wonder Boyd Neel recorded it with his orchestra in 1946. The luminous Choral Seventh (1906) dates from after his return to Denmark setting a text he and his wife created on “Life, Death and Immortality” and proves a fitting culmination to the cycle. Dausgaard conducts with all the verve we expect from him, relishing the combination of late-Romantic lyricism and Berliozian instrumental dash. Hamerik may not have been ultimately of the front rank and was in time eclipsed by Nielsen and Holmboe, but his art was a fine addition to European culture. Top-notch sound from Dacapo makes this a highly enjoyable set.

Peter Joelson
Audiophile Audition, December 2009

Asger Hamerik (1843–1923) was the son of a highly respected Danish theologian and showed musical talent at an early age. He was allowed by his parents to study composition with Niels Gade and J.P.E. Hartmann, both of whom were related to his mother, and he was a distant relative of Rued Langgaard, whose aunt was Niels Gade’s daughter-in-law.

He wrote his first symphony as early as 1860 but the manuscript has yet to be discovered, and in 1862 was allowed to travel to London, then to Berlin to study with Hans von Bülow. Unfortunately the Danish-German war of 1864 made it necessary for him to leave Berlin, and he went to Paris armed with a letter of recommendation to Hector Berlioz. At this stage he altered his surname from Hammerich to Hamerik. Berlioz took the young Hamerik on as a composition student and the two remained friends until the Frenchman’s death in 1869. Another of Hamerik’s lost manuscripts is Hymne à la Paix, with Berliozian wind band, two organs and twelve harps.

In 1871, while in Vienna, the American consul offered him the post of Director of the Peabody Institute, Baltimore’s conservatoire and music society. He arrived in Baltimore in August 1871 and remained there for 27 years, and wrote all the works included in this splendid set while in America.

Hamerik’s symphonies owe their inspiration to all of this variety of environment and there are hints to be heard throughout. Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Gade, Dvořák and, of course, Berlioz influenced his writing subtly, and if it ends up not the most original it remains interesting. For much of his time in Baltimore Hamerik was blessed with an orchestra of 80 players, and his first symphony, dedicated to Anton Rubinstein, was premièred there, and very well received, in 1881.  It is possible some material from a Nordic Suite he had been writing was included, and the work is solidly crafted. The Second Symphony, in C minor, seems to take some inspiration from Beethoven’s in the same key in its last movement’s coda’s transformation from the tragic C minor to the triumphant major. Hamerik also makes use of the Berliozian idée fixe, a motif recurring throughout the work, which serves to glue the ideas together, and this conceit is used, too, in the following symphonies.

The Fifth Symphony’s scherzo is gorgeously Beethovenian, guaranteed to perk up the most jaded of souls. Sadly, financial circumstances in Baltimore precluded Hamerik’s using a full symphony orchestra from the mid-1890s; however, the composer rose to the occasion with his Sixth Symphony writing an original and charming work for strings only.  Boyd Neel recorded this work for Decca just after the war, a recording issued only on ffrr 78s and never reissued.

The Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra and Thomas Dausgaard achieve results of the highest quality and the performances come across as a labour of love. Every department in the orchestra shines, from silky strings to well-blended brass, and there are some lovely wind solos to be heard.

The Danish National Symphony Orchestra are equally impressive in the final two works, the choral Seventh Symphony and Requiem. The symphony was completed just before the board of trustees made the decision to suspend regular orchestral concert series and Hamerik had resigned and left before the première was given. Hamerik had married in 1894 and his wife gave birth not long after their return to Denmark to their son, Ebbe (1898–1951). The Seventh is in three movements, two slow ones framing a shorter quicker one and the structure is more individual here than in the purely instrumental works. The chorus contributed excellently, while the mezzo, Randi Stene, has a somewhat wide vibrato and is occasionally masked by the orchestra. The journey from quiet minor key opening to triumphant ending again uses the recurring motifs.

Stene’s singing is far more secure in the Requiem where she is contralto soloist. Hamerik had great love for this work and it was really very well received at both American and European premières. The brass fanfares in the Dies Irae gave me the distinct impression the work was about to transform into Mendelssohn’s Wedding March on more than one occasion; it certainly grabs the attention!

This set of discs comes with an excellent booklet running to 46 pages, with full texts provided and and an extensive and informative essay by Knud Ketting. The recordings in this collection date from 1997 to 2005 and have been remastered very successfully for SACD release. The earlier recordings’ multichannel elements sound real and not processed; although there is a noticeable improvement in sound quality from the First Symphony to the Sixth recorded in 2000, that early quality remains very good indeed and the most recent I found thoroughly excellent. Those with a love for Romantic and late-Romantic music will need little encouragement to sample this first-rate release.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, November 2009

The Danish composer Asger Hamerik moved to the USA in 1871 following the death of his mentor Hector Berlioz. In the USA he was director of Baltimore’s Peabody Institute. The Peabody had an eighty-strong orchestra and a vibrant musical tradition. He stayed with the Peabody for 27 years with summer vacations spent on the seaboard at Chester, Nova Scotia. That was the backdrop for the writing of the symphonies. In America he married, at the age of 51, the 26 year old Margaret Williams. They returned to Denmark in 1898 when the Peabody Institute ceased their orchestral concert series. That same year the couple’s son, the composer Ebbe Hamerik was born. After living the gypsy life they settled in Copenhagen in 1900 where Asger died in 1923 at the age of 80. His oeuvre includes four operas, seven symphonies and a series of Nordic Suites.

Dacapo turn in blazingly confident performances of his most ambitious choral-orchestral works: the last Symphony and the Requiem. Each is spectacular in scale and subject matter. They address the eternal verities; the first title of the Seventh Symphony was Life, Death and Immortality. Each savours of Berlioz but the music-making has a confidence that defeats any fear that he is a mere epigone. This is music for the grandest spaces. Rhythmic, antiphonal and other spatial effects abound and add to the deeply impressive impact of these pieces.

The Seventh Symphony was first completed in 1898 but revised several times until 1906. The words are by the composer and his wife. Fascinating that the markings for the three movements belie what you hear. The Largo starts with a call to worship; one that cannot be ignored. The music is blazing and impetuous; splendid in thrust and retort. It has a strikingly Berlioz-like vehemence and smoking intensity relieved by some verdantly Verdian reflections. There were also a few moments that anticipate Delius in their Elysian contours. The wonderful repose carries over into the Andante Sostenuto with its idyllic and heart-easing peacefulness (try 5:12 onwards). The finale is marked Grave and again radiates a strong tranquil atmosphere: a sturdy yet suave benediction. This contrasts with some rampantly exultant writing reminiscent of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony. Very satisfying and stirring.

The Requiem has been recorded before. You can find it on a Kontrapunkt double CD set reviewed here. That version was conducted by the redoubtable Ole Schmidt. It’s a recording to be reckoned with but is outfaced by a Dacapo’s splendid recording and performance as well as an even more compelling coupling. Its Requiem et kyrie radiates a sense of warming grandeur and ineffable strength. Compare this with the ragingly potent Dies irae with its romping vitality. The Dies irae plainchant is heard in orchestra and in the choir. This is sung and played with commanding verve and imperious hauteur. Listen to the almost forbidding unanimity of the choir and the Berliozian crump and groan of the tuba and trombones—almost a malediction. It is as if the brass writing has escaped from the March to the Scaffold from the Symphonie Fantastique. This is apocalyptic and majestic writing. Hamerik resorts, during this extended Dies Irae movement, to sonorous Verdian cantilena (3:12) before the return of the more volcanic writing at 13:17. The following Offertorium sounds similar to Fauré while in the Sanctus the trumpets ring out as if at the opening of the Seven Seals. The writing for the choir is dancing and fugal—the impression being of trailing clouds of glory across a Turner sunset. The concluding Agnus Dei has a smiling Dvořákian curvature. Randi Stene is in calming voice and the final words Requiescant in pace and Amen roundedly confer a final sleep.

All six of the orchestra-only symphonies are in four movements. The First (Poétique) is sturdy, emphatic and cross-cut with powerful currents from Schumann and Beethoven. While the third movement certainly finds a radiant poetry the gruff energy of Beethoven Seven and Schumann Four shake the rafters in the remaining movements. The whirling string writing may remind you on occasion of Tchaikovsky (Hamlet) and Berlioz (Le Corsair). The Second Symphony is the longest of the symphonies. It is dedicated to Wagner’s patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. It has a graver and more imperious mien than its predecessor relieved somewhat by the heavily skipping Allegro marcato (III). The finale has a blood-drained exhaustion about it reminiscent of the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique blended with a grand Berliozian anger. The Third Symphony is the Lyrique. It is swept with the wildness of heart of Berlioz married up with inspiration from the Mendelssohn overtures (Ruy Blas, Athalie) and Schumann (Julius Caesar). Lyrical ideas fly through the second movement like will-o-the-wisps while the third is more tragic in atmosphere. All clouded skies are banished for the finale with its cheery rolling gait—close perhaps to Mendelssohn’s Scotch Symphony. The Fourth—known as the Symphonie majestueuse—lives up to its title. This is especially in the outer movements but is sustained even in the flute-initiated intimacies of its Adagio espressivo. During his lifetime it was the most performed of his symphonies in Denmark. The Fifth Symphony Sérieuse is a classic illustration not only of Hamerik’s melodic quality but also of his gifted way with dynamics. The invention is fluent but is attractively fibrous and memorable—not least in the Beethovenian effervescence of the Scherzo (III) and the Egmont-darkness of the finale. The latter is completed by lightning-striking magnificence. The Sixth Symphony Spirituelle is for a massed string orchestra. The writing is emphatic and inventive. It variously recalls/foreshadows fine moments from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and Bridge’s Suite for Strings. The feathery-poetry of Berlioz puts in guest appearances amid ideas that flow like honey and sweep by in mercurial parturition.

Dacapo do their usual truly outstanding job in documenting these discs. The booklet runs to 48 pages of which the English notes run to eight pages. The sung texts and their translations are given. The author is Knud Ketting.

The symphonies are also available as individual discs: 8.224076 (Symphonies 1-2); 8.224088 (Symphonies 3-4); 8.224161 (Symphonies 5-6); and 8.226033 (Choral; Requiem)…The present CDs have been recorded in cooperation with the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and are exemplary in every way. The box has been designed so that as it fold open the discs, each in their own wallet-integral segment rise up with the booklet accommodated in the final envelope. The CDs themselves each appear to be made of a slightly sturdier thickness of disc than usual. This is similar to the equally admirable Langgaard symphony set from the same company [See discography page]. Hameri was no Langgaard but he had a most gifted faculty that delivers symphonies that reward the attentive listener.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group