Sterling's Franz Berwald: The Battle of Leipzig, featuring the Malmö Opera Orchestra under Niklas Willén, brings to CD the remaining extant orchestral works of Franz Berwald that have not previously made it to recordings. The title work dates from 1828 -- the same year as Berwald's famous Septet for winds in B flat -- and is clearly written in response to Beethoven's Wellington's Victory, Op. 91 (1813), then one of the Bonn master's most famous and frequently heard compositions; Berwald simply picked a slightly later Napoleonic defeat than Beethoven had and decided to forego the cannon. Unlike Berwald's earlier Symphony in A (1820), this piece is firmly ensconced in late classical style, though the orchestration shows some commonality with the approach of Hector Berlioz, surprising as Berlioz had yet to roll out his mature orchestral style with his Symphonie Fantastique, though he would do so shortly thereafter. The Double Violin Concerto (1817) and Thema mit Variationen (1816) both have one foot in and one foot out of classical style; one would not be blamed for thinking that the Thema mit Variationen was some movement from a violin concerto Felix Mendelssohn laid aside and never finished. Moreover, this is one of the striking things about early Berwald; he seems, in spite of his Swedish isolation from developing currents in romantic music and the apparent allergy that Swedes had against romantic style, to have been working right along such lines; The Battle of Leipzig itself is a rare exception to the rule, and perhaps Berwald was hoping to score some kind of success with it that he could not obtain with pieces rendered in his usual manner.
The operatic music from The Queen of Golconda (1864) and Estrella de Soria (1841-1845) contains two overtures already well known, and these are wisely included along with some other incidental pieces from those works that have not been recorded before. The overture to The Queen of Golconda contains one of the strangest openings in all of Berwald's music, a single, mournful upwards arc of bass, pianissimo, interrupted with blasts of dissonant chords in the winds, forte. The performance here is both lively and disciplined, perhaps not as fiery as Sixten Ehrling's long ago recording with the Swedish Radio Symphony, but the relaxed tempo the Malmö observes helps more the sinuous and eccentric chord progressions in the piece come off with a bit more persuasiveness. The incidental music, however, is a real treat: the folk dance music in The Queen of Golconda is on a par with anything by Grieg or Tchaikovsky, and the Polonaise in Estrella da Soria is a great operatic dance, hearkening back somewhat to the example of Berlioz, except that we know Berwald had that idiom under his belt before Berlioz introduced it. All of the music is tempered by Berwald's unique and flexible approach to harmony, far more pronounced in later works than in earlier ones, though flashes of it also appear there.
Needless to say, those devoted to Franz Berwald will want to make obtaining this a priority; those unfamiliar with the Swedish master should really start with the symphonies first. Sterling's recording is top drawer and the performances by Willén and the Malmö tread a light step; violinists on the hunt for outstanding violin literature from the nineteenth century should likewise consult these concerti.