August Halm: Symphony

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

This sunny, fascinating symphony is the work of a composer who clearly knows what he wants to do and has the means and technique at his disposal to do it. German composer August Halm (1869-1929) wrote only a tiny handful of works for full orchestra, of which this piece, completed in the 1920s after many years of stop-and-go effort, is the last. Its austerity and neo-classical freshness might be mistaken for the work of some similarly inclined Scandinavian composer–Stenhammar, perhaps, or Nielsen with more emphasis on the strings and a greater tendency to ramble (albeit amiably). In other words, the music is austere without ever sounding inhibited, and thoroughly pastoral in its melodic content and scoring. Although conservative in harmonic outlook, Halm’s creative use of tuned percussion (glockenspiel and chimes), gangly contrapuntal lines, occasional rhythmic tricks, and quirks of scoring (including some surprising trombone glissandos in the finale) mark him as an artist thoroughly aware of contemporary trends and willing to bend them to his own needs.

The genial opening movement, a leisurely Allegro comodo, ambles along graciously for more than 15 minutes without ever seeming too long for its material. It’s followed by an adagio that is simply gorgeous, thematically memorable, eloquent, clear as a bell in form, and wonderfully well laid out for the orchestra. The final two movements are joined, beginning with a charming “Szene” led by a pair of flutes and concluding with a varied rondo, again in moderate tempo, that contains plenty of good humor plus a surprise or two. I can’t imagine that this is easy music to play: the transparency and leanness of the orchestration would be quite taxing for the strings in particular, and the orchestra here does a very creditable job. It may not be a top-notch ensemble, but in this work it’s much harder to criticize the results than in the same orchestra’s recent Mahler Fifth on ebs. Conductor Per Borin keeps the music flowing, though a couple of moments in the outer movements struck me as slightly under tempo. Still, this thoroughly creditable effort offers a more than adequate view of a lovely symphony that collectors are sure to relish. Sonics are clean and natural, just like the music itself.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: None

AUGUST HALM - Symphony in A

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