SÖDERMAN: Concert Overture in F; Zohrab; Wedding March from "The Wedding at Ulfäsa"; King Karl XV's Funeral March; Intermezzo "A Sailor's Life"; Burlesque; Swedish Folk-songs and Folk-Dances; Ceremonial Polonaise; Bellman Melodies for Orchestra; Swedish Festival (overture to "Die Jungfrau von Orleans").
Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera/Roy Goodman, cond.
Sterling CDS-1040 {DDD} TT: 73


Against all odds, I've actually performed S–derman's music as a high-school chorister.  Now I would consider the piece a blameless bit of Victorian ceremony --- a choral fanfare plus a fairly academic fugue --- but then I was overwhelmed.  I especially enjoyed singing the fugue.  Most consider S–derman the first major Swedish Romantic nationalist, and one can certainly hear the folkier AlfvÈn and Larsson in much of his work.

S–derman's voice is small, but true.  The program is, for the most part, very attractive.  There's even a surprise or two.  The big one for me has to be the Mendelssohnian foundation of S–derman's -- and consequently the Swedish pastoral -- style.  True, S–derman studied in Leipzig, but the early Concert Overture, written beforehand, stands as the most Mendelssohnian thing on the disc.  A young composer could do worse.  Even when Mendelssohn's riffs disappear, the elegance and efficiency of the style remain, in a way that reminds me of Swedish Modern furniture design.  At S–derman's best, the music brims full of lovely tunes and lively dances.  At his worst, the music just sort of lays there.  Fortunately, he usually writes at or near the top of his game.

S–derman's short career (he died in his early 40s) was often that of a kind of Swedish musical Tennyson.  He wrote a very large part of his catalogue either for some occasion or as a supplier of dramatic incidental music.  He never got to write a symphony or an opera.  It says much for him that some of these works transcended their occasions and that others still perform a ceremonial function.  The earliest work on the CD, the Concert Overture, is also one of his most substantial, despite the Mendelssohn sound in every bar.  Indeed, it very often reaches Mendelssohn's very high level.  However, it is oddly "faceless," and one can hear in the nothing-much Ceremonial Polonaise (written for a coronation ball) the respectable nonentity S–derman might have become, had he continued along this path.  But he always seems to push himself, to stretch his modes of expression.  The overture to Zohrab overlays the Mendelssohnian foundation with the more exotic elements of such Romantic French opera composers as Auber, Adam, and HalÈvy. 

Nevertheless, one can fairly claim that Swedish folk music saved S–derman from becoming another bland exponent of an "international" style.  I suspect that the modes and "odd" phrase lengths of folk music represented something outside the Leipzig curriculum.  He had to find a way to incorporate them into his music.  In the process, his music changed.  The harmonies and the rhythmic possibilities expanded.  His stylistic economy remained, however.  What one gets in his folk-inspired pieces is the illusion of simplicity, something like the trick Mozart habitually pulls off, although S–derman doesn't play the game at Mozart's level.  This is music that works directly, and I can pay it no higher compliment than to call it folk-like.  It's like a drink of really fresh water.

Goodman brings to the music his usual virtues of clarity and rhythmic spring.  The band does well.  I suppose one might carp that, after all, they're not playing Brahms exactly, but S–derman's simplicity presents its own challenges.  You can't let it sound simple-minded, and it doesn't give players a lot of room to hide.  Goodman and the orchestra meet both challenges successfully.

The sound is as good as it needs to be.

S.G.S. (Aug. 2001)