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PB, as he was known when he was a feared music critic for more than thirty years, is one of those unsung composers who, like Kurt Atterberg, had a knack for writing very attractive melodies, wrapped in gorgeous orchestrations. The verbose and slightly heavy-handed booklets accompanying the discs warn the listener that PB had never really mastered the art of compositional form: the scherzo of the first symphony "offers not enough contrast to the gravity of the other movements". But of course. PB "obviously found it difficult to come to grips with the material" and "the music does not live up to the ideas behind it". The obviousness escapes me and the second part is a platitude that mainly serves as page-filling nonsense. The music is in turns warmly nostalgic, sweepingly romantic, wistful, dramatically powerful, and lushly melodious (all those things we would associate with the majesty of the Nordic landscapes) and masterfully scored for a very large orchestra, with harps and tympani galore. Apart from the five symphonies (composed between 1903 and 1933) there are several attractive orchestral suites of piano works and a splendid violin concerto. Recorded sound is excellent, warm and spacious, with all the inner voices clearly audible (which must surely also be attributable to conductor Michail Jurowski).
Wilhelm Peterson-Berger (1867-1942) fut un critique musical redoutable et un compositeur de 5 symphonies à programme, ayant toutes un titre. Elles sont ici très bien interprétées et remarquablement enregistrées chez CPO (avec brochure traduite en français). Ces 5 symphonies sont très agréables à écouter, même si elles n'ont pas le sens mélodique et dramatique de celles de Stenhammar, Alfven ou Louis Glass (danois), et si elles n'ont pas la puissance tonique de celles de Atterberg. Chez Peterson-Berger, la mer est belle et calme, la campagne bucolique, alors que chez Alfven, la mer est en tempête et chez Louis Glass, la forêt peut être inquiétante, surtout la nuit....
CPO continues to be the most interesting of all the classical labels. They're bold, they take chances that no one else would take, and their productions are, for the most part, really well done.
So, here we have the symphonies of Wilhelm Petersen-Berger, yet another composer few have heard of. His music is very tuneful, old-fashioned (in a good sense), and lovely to hear. The accompanying orchestral pieces are also very nice. There's nothing earth-shattering here, but not everything needs to be earth-shattering. Sometimes plain old craft and professionalism take the day - this is hours of lovely listening and yes a pleasure.
I can't add anything to the other very detailed and expert review which echoes my own response to listening to this wonderful bargain price set. Lacking technical expertise in music save being able to enjoy good music, whether classical or jazz, I found this previously unknown (to me) composer a revelation with his beautiful late romantic lush orchestrations. His works seemed to me like a Scandinavian version of Glazunov, his almost identical contemporary, being both colourful and tuneful. Browsing Amazon I have continued to come across lesser known, unheralded composers who sound every bit as good as the regular big names in concert programs. I would strongly recommend Peterson-Berger to anyone who enjoys the likes of Grieg, Tchaikovsky or Sibelius. I should add that to my ears, both the performances and sound quality are top notch.
JULY 2013: I can do little to add to the excellent reviews that appear already, which make the valid point that this is charming music that is not particularly original and does at times tend to drag on. Peterson-Berger has many gifts though he was not the most gifted symphonist. Some works, such as the fourth symphony, stand out for particular features such as extensive use of orchestral piano. (As the booklet points out this was quite ironic given his caustic criticism of Kurt Atterberg for excessive reliance on the piano.) Others, like the first symphony, barely offer anything in the way of originality. Peterson-Berger is a good though not great melodist, a quality that emerges in clear masterpieces such as the great Violin Concerto and the I Somros Suite. The set's highlights make it worth purchasing but there is a lot of material here that is just too inoffensive to retain protracted interest.
UPDATE AUGUST 2020: I want to retract the dismissive review provided by my former youthful self seven years ago: These symphonies, even the relatively tame first, don't contain an unoriginal note in them. They are full of surprises and an irreverent late romanticism that subtly pays homage to the modernist trends that Peterson-Berger appears to have adopted a philosophical posture toward. The extras thrown in - such as the deeply moving choral and fugue - are an added bonus, and it's all delivered with great panache under the baton of Maestro Jurowski. I am glad I invested the time into revisiting this set: I will be coming back to it frequently.