Swedish Romantics: Wilhelm Peterson-Berger 'Arnljot' excerpts

Besides its natural beauty Jämtland is notable for its history-long ago it was independent of Norway and Sweden, after which it was passed between them more than thirty times. These historical facts form the background of the opera. The Arnljot returns to Jämtland after wandering with the Vikings. He finds that his intended Gunhild has married his enemy Gudfast, who has also blackened Arnljot’s reputation. The disc’s first excerpt, Arnljot’s Greeting Song, dramatically encapsulates the hero’s feelings on returning to his homeland. After this overwhelming scene, our hero heads to a meeting of the Jämtish council, the Thing, where the council members arrive to the second excerpt, the Thing March. Here Gudfast deliberately taunts Arnljot until Arnljot kills him. For this he is exiled to the forest.At last! The famous LP now transferred successfully to CD. All the important parts of the opera are included!

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In Act II Arnljot is living in the forest as an outlaw. He is attended only by the Sami (Lap) girl Waino, who is not so secretly in love with him. In her first plaintive song (excerpt 3) she sings of her unrequited love. Most of the emotional content is carried by the orchestra until the vocal line becomes more intense towards the end of the song. The centerpiece of Act II is Arnljot’s encounter with Gunhild (excerpt 4). She has converted to Christianity and is journeying to join King Olaf of Norway. Arnljot reminds her that she had offered to join him when he was exiled by the Thing. Now he wants to keep her with him in the forest but Gunhild rejects this and only wishes to continue to Norway. Arnljot eventually shows her the way. Peterson-Berger’s music in this section is mostly of a chamber music texture, which serves to emphasize the strong emotions while also portraying the dark forest where the scene takes place.

Act II continues with Waino’s Second Song (excerpt 5), more despairing than its predecessor, and full of wonderful nature illustration. The act concludes with excerpt 6, Arnljot’s Dream, in which he realizes that his personal values are reconcilable with the values of Christianity. It has to be said that this excerpt has none of the mysticism the plot requires and is the least convincing of the excerpts.

Act III takes place on the field of Stiklestad, where King Olaf was killed but which battle served after his death to bring victory for Christianity in Norway. Arnljot has joined King Olaf and is baptized in the presence of Gunhild. The minstrel Torwald then sings an ode in praise of King Olaf (excerpt 7) that stands out for its energy. However, the King is killed in the battle and Arnljot is mortally wounded. The last two scenes of the opera are recorded in their entirety. Arnljot and Gunhild are finally united emotionally and the opera ends with the arrival of representatives from Jämtland led by Sigurd acclaiming Arnljot as their new king, but it is too late, and Arnljot dies in Gunhild’s arms as the Christian forces again attack the enemy. The music for these last scenes is some of the best that Peterson-Berger ever wrote, especially the vocal writing for Arnljot. Also exceptional is the transformation of the main theme from Act I into, first a funeral march for Arnljot, and then, triumphal music for the forces of King Olaf.

Arnljot shows Peterson-Berger conveying a wide range of emotions within a musical structure of great complexity, ability perhaps not always evident in the composer’s. It is almost criminal that the opera has never been recorded on CD in its entirety, although there was a recording on Caprice in the LP era. For the present that leaves this disc, originally recorded on LP for EMI in 1973 and re-released by Sterling in 2009. It should be said at the outset that, although this recording is obviously not up to present aural standards, the sound holds up quite well for 1973-the words are occasionally indistinct but the music comes through. These concerns are forgotten once Erland Hagegård (cousin of Håkan) launches into the Greeting Song. As the role requires, his singing is both gentle and impassioned and he continues at this high level throughout the recording. Edith Thallaug is not as impressive in the role of Gunhild, although she is convincing in the opera’s conclusion. Karin Langebo is exceptional as Waino, wringing all the pathos from her second song. Of the lesser parts, Björn Asker is striking as Tormod in the aria to King Olaf and Kåge Jehrlander appropriately solemn as Sigurd.

The interplay of voice and orchestra in Arnljot is essential to composer’s overall conception and Okku Kamu achieves a balance I’m sure the composer would have been proud of. He also extracts beautiful playing from the Stockholm Philharmonic. Arnljot is essential for fans of Swedish music and of Romantic opera. Until such time as a complete CD recording is available this disc is a worthy substitute. William Kreindler, MusicWeb

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