Naxos, having already contributed efforts to a cycle of the Franz Berwald symphonies with Okko Kamu at the helm, now takes on several of his tone poems with the Gävle Symphony Orchestra. Whereas many orchestral tone poems are seen as secondary in importance within the works of composers best known as symphonists, Swedish composer Berwald lavished just as much attention on these ten-minute mini-masterworks as he did his longer symphonies, and one work here, Overture to Drottningen av Golconda, is held in roughly equal regard. Berwald's tone poems contain many of the aspects that are most attractive about his symphonies -- the racing, uptempo sections inspired by the example of Italian opera, his distinctive voicings in the winds and brass, and quirky harmonic ideas that seem like they don't quite belong in the nineteenth century.
One extreme rarity, Ernste und heitere Grillen (Serious and Joyful Fancies), does not appear to have been recorded before, and none of the others are particularly common or easy to find -- their neglect is hard to fathom. One would imagine that bassoonists, with their rather limited repertoire, would be falling over one another trying to learn the Konzertstück for bassoon and orchestra, a rare throwback in Berwald to the medium of classical concertante writing. It is a very appealing piece, quoting as it does the familiar melody "Home, Sweet Home," but it is seldom recorded or heard in concert. Likewise, the fleet Wettlauf (Foot-Race) is a compelling and energizing sports-themed work that predates Arthur Honegger's Rugby by eight decades, just as Elfenspiel tends to anticipate the Gnomic character pieces of Grieg.
These performances, by the Gävle Symphony Orchestra under Petri Sakari, represent good "meat and potatoes" Berwald. The performances are not as granitically solid as the interpretations of the original champion of these tone poems, Sixten Ehrling, but those older recordings are difficult to find, and Naxos' disc is very reasonably priced. For most music lovers outside of Nordic countries, Berwald remains something of an adventure, and an enigma. Naxos' Franz Berwald: Tone Poems will hopefully help bring more listeners into the fold, as anyone who likes Romantic orchestral literature, arguably the core of the most popular classical music, will easily hear for him or herself the considerable virtues of Berwald's music.