Asger Hamerik (1843-1923) is a Danish composer who studied with Gade and Berlioz and who spent the greater portion of his composing life in Baltimore where he had become the head of the Peabody Institute at age twenty-eight and where he remained for twenty-seven years. All the music here was written and premiered in Baltimore. He eventually returned to Denmark (with a new bride barely half his age) but composed very little after his return. Although he used some of Berlioz's techniques -- primarily the notion of the idée fixe, a melodic strand that returns throughout a large multi-movement work -- his music actually sounds much more like an offshoot of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Gade. The music is quite conservative for its time but at the distance of more than a hundred years (the latest piece heard on this 4 CD set, the Seventh Symphony, was composed in 1906) that makes little difference. One can clearly hear his growth as a composer if one listens to the works in chronological order. Symphonies No. 1 ('Poetique', 1879-80) and 2 ('Tragique', 1882-83) are very conservative and they contain a lot of unmemorable if neatly worked out elements. One would not be far wrong to call them the work of an advanced student. With Symphony No. 3 we begin to encounter a composer of increasing abilities although the music still sounds a little academic: solidly written but still a little dull much of the way. No. 3 ('Lyrique', 1883-84) has some memorable themes that are worked out conservatively, safely. The Allegro con spirito finale is a happy thing whose main theme is somehow looser and thus more enjoyable than those of the earlier movements. Symphony No. 4 ('Majestueuse', dedicated to Danish King Christian X, 1888-89) begins with a solemn hymn, perhaps meant as a patriotic paean, whose initial appearance is impressive but whose regularity becomes a hazard for its working-out. This is followed by a solemn Andante and a martial Scherzo, the latter with some hints of light-heartedness. The finale returns us to the pageantry of the first movement (and, strangely, with some hints of Haydn's Deutschlandlied ['Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser') from his Emperor String Quartet).
Symphony No. 5 ('Sérieuse', 1889-1891) opens with a slow solemn low string melody punctuated by stentorian brass before moving into an allegro con fuoco main section based on the minor third compass of the opening melody. The Adagio is a lovely Brucknerian hymn dominated by soft brass chords. The Scherzo is an energetic 3/8 movement reminiscent of Beethoven or Schubert but lacking quite their thematic memorability. The fourth movement returns us to the solemnity of the first and is again focused on the minor third motif. Symphony No. 6 ('Spirituelle' 1897) is for strings alone. Some say Hamerik wrote it for strings because of budgetary reasons, others indicate that the Peabody Orchestra's winds were on strike. Whatever the reason for its composition, this symphony is my own personal favorite. The string writing is expert, the themes are memorable, the harmonies are in some ways the most advanced one can hear in this composer's music. One is reminded at times of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, high praise indeed. Further, the Helsingborg Orchestra strings (which is the orchestra playing in Symphonies 1 - 6) are impeccable.
Hamerik's Symphony No. 7 ('Choral', 1906, revised from an 1898 version) was his penultimate composition; he was virtually inactive as a composer for the next seventeen years. The symphony is in three movements -- slow, fast, slow -- and though it begins in a somber D Minor, it ends in a jubilant C Major. The Danish text, written by the composer and his wife, the former Margaret Williams of Tennessee, muses on the journey through life to death. The first and third movements are choral, the second sung by a mezzo-soprano soloist. (This recording's soloist, although musical, has an unsettling lack of control especially in the movement's more dramatic outpourings.) The third movement is a gorgeous and rapturous contemplation of life eternal.
The Requiem (1886-87) was reportedly Hamerik's favorite of his own works. Of all the works here, this is the one in which can mostly plainly hear the influence of Berlioz on Hamerik's work, at least partly because Berlioz's own Requiem was almost certainly used as a model by Hamerik. Particularly in the Dies Irae one can hear a manic, devilish, almost out-of-control Berliozan frenzy. I kept thinking of the 'March to the Scaffold' from the Symphonie Fantastique. Hamerik's use of the brass in the Tuba Mirum is unlike anything else in the music contained in this 4CD set. And scarily daunting it is. In contrast the Requiem et Kyrie is beseeching, rapt. The Offertorio sounds a bit like the same section of Fauré Requiem (but was written a year or so before it). Mezzo Randi Stene sounds much better in this section than in the second movement of Symphony No. 7. The Sanctus begins with exciting trumpet fanfares and then launches into a lively, almost skipping fugal choral passage that is one of the best things in the whole work. The Agnus Dei/Lux Aeterna has the mezzo and chorus comforting us with the promise of redemption of sins and of eternal rest. This is a beautiful work that is, for me, easily the best thing in this set. The Requiem could easily find a welcome place in concerthalls around the world.
The first six symphonies were played by the Helsingborg Symphony in their own concert hall between 1997 and 2000. The Seventh Symphony and the Requiem were performed in the Danish Radio Concert Hall by the Danish National Symphony and Chorus with mezzo-soprano soloist Randi Stene, in 2002 and 2005 respectively. All the performances were conducted by the marvelous Thomas Dausgaard whose work on records I have come to look forward to eagerly. Recorded sound, both in stereo and in SACD, is wonderfully lifelike. (All four of these SACDs have been, and remain, available singly here at Amazon, but at full price. This 4CD set, however, is at mid-price.)