About this Recording
8.572186 - STENHAMMAR, W.: Serenade / Florez och Blanzeflor / Ithaka / Prelude and Bourree (Fredriksson, Gavle Symphony, Koivula)

Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871–1927)
Serenade in F major (Revised Version) • Florez och Blanzeflor • Ithaka
Sången: Mellanspiel (Interlude) • Prélude and Bourrée


Wilhelm Stenhammar was born in Stockholm on 7 February 1871, the son of an architect father and draftswoman mother who strongly encouraged his musical leanings. Fluent on the piano and organ from an early age, he never formally studied composition, focusing instead on the piano both in Stockholm (with Richard Andersson) and latterly in Berlin (with Heinrich Barth). The 8 February 1892 saw his début as a pianist, as soloist in Brahms’s First Concerto and in recital with the Aulin Quartet, and as a composer with his cantata I rosengården. He made his conducting début in 1897 and later held appointments with the Stockholm Philharmonic Society (1897–1900), the New Philharmonic Society (1904–6) and, above all, the Gothenburg Orchestral Society (1906–22) which he turned into the most ambitious and enterprising such institution in Northern Europe. He took up an appointment at the Royal Opera in 1924 but his health was by now fast declining and he died, following a stroke, in Stockholm on 20 November 1927.

Although he attained early success with his First Piano Concerto (1893) and first opera Festival at Solhaug (1893), Stenhammar’s output decreased markedly after 1900. This was partly because of conducting commitments but also increasing uncertainty, notably after the failure of his second opera Tirfing (1898), over the direction he wished to pursue. Moving away from an outwardly Wagnerian manner, he strove for a style that embodied his Swedish inheritance without being overtly nationalistic. The “idyllic Bruckner” (his description) of his First Symphony (1903) dissatisfied him after its première and went unheard again in his lifetime. Only with the Second Piano Concerto did he arrive at a wholly personal idiom, refined in a sequence of orchestral and chamber works as well as several scores for the theatre. His final decade saw only a handful of pieces as years of tirelessly promoting the music of others, both as pianist and conductor, took their toll.

Along with the Second Symphony [Naxos 8.553888], the Serenade is Stenhammar’s greatest orchestral work. He began it while on vacation in Italy in 1907, but completed it only in 1913. Its Stockholm première the next year was not a success and the composer duly withdrew it for revision, transposing the outer movements from E major to F major and omitting the second movement (though this Reverenza has since been performed as a separate work), in which new guise the work was well received in Gothenburg on 3 March 1920. Although avowedly non-symphonic, the Serenade has both a motivic intricacy and textural finesse that transcend the modest and unassuming nature of its title.

The Overtura springs to life with a lively idea on strings, followed by more pensive woodwind writing. The initial music resumes before leading to a suave theme for strings, given gravitas when continued by cellos. Both are developed at length, the former enhanced by brass fanfares and the latter by chorale-like woodwind. After a brief allusion to the pensive music near the start, the music darts to a close. The Canzonetta centres on a waltz-inflected theme for woodwind above hesitant strings. Solo violin spins an enticing melodic line, then the initial theme continues more fully on strings. The music now heads into a brief postlude featuring horns and cellos before its wistful close. Without pause, the Scherzo takes off with effervescent music for woodwind and upper strings, the latter heading into a martial idea with fanfaring brass and percussion to the fore. This reaches a crescendo, curtailed to reveal the strings musing gently on earlier ideas. The initial music resumes with mounting anticipation, at the height of which, the martial music bursts in with renewed impetus. Aspects of this and other themes are freely superimposed, the excitement gradually dying down to leave the violins ascending slowly into space. Again without pause, the Notturno begins with a tranquil idea shared by woodwind and strings, which latter invest the music with elegiac intensity as it unfolds. Distant recollections of the martial theme heard earlier sound out on horns, the music building gradually to a heightened resumption of its opening ideas. This time, the elegiac string writing brings about a regretful close. The Finale begins uncertainly, but takes on greater animation with capering music for woodwind and strings. A contrasting note is sounded by a lyrical woodwind theme; over pizzicato strings, this gradually brings about the work’s climax. Earlier ideas are recalled, before calm is restored and the lyrical theme stated nobly by strings. A final return of the initial music brings with it a fleeting farewell.

Oscar Levertin (1862–1906) was among the leading Swedish poets of the later nineteenth century and Stenhammar set his verse on several occasions. His setting of the ballad Florez and Blanzeflor (1891) was one of his first successes as a composer and remains among his most representative early works. It opens impassively, woodwind arabesques gently coalescing into the noble melody with which the soloist intones the first verse. The music gains in intensity over the next three verses, detailing the youth, wedding, reign and then death of the royal couple, before returning to the mood of the opening. Here, the soloist reflects impassively on the renewal of life as brought by the coming of spring.

Unlike the earlier ballad, Ithaca (1904) unfolds as a continuous setting, its depiction of storm-tossed ocean and the related stresses of human life underpinned by a constant eddying motion on the lower strings. There are many evocative touches, though the prevailing mood is one of a ceaseless striving for the ‘ideal’, emphasized when the music touches on the major key at the mention of the mythical isle and the protagonist’s arrival there, giving the closing bars a hard-won affirmation.

Completed in 1921, the cantata The Song was Stenhammar’s last major work and its combination of Wagnerian harmonic richness with Handelian contrapuntal dexterity secured it a decidedly equivocal reception. The Interlude that links its two halves is the only portion heard at all frequently today, and stands as an impressive summary of the composer’s late style. Beginning in the lower strings and woodwind, the music unfolds in spans of calm polyphony that feature some of his most sonorous orchestration. A noble brass chorale emerges towards midpoint, yet neither this nor the finely wrought climax disturbs the prevailing mood, which draws to its subdued conclusion.

Composed from October to December of 1891, Prélude and Bourrée is a hitherto unknown work recently located at the Swedish Music Library in Stockholm, here receiving its first recording and most likely first performance (in an edition prepared by the composer Mattias Lysell). Although Stenhammar seems to have intended a larger suite, further movements never materialized. The Prélude, marked Andante moderato, opens with restful music for strings that gains animation as woodwind gradually come to the fore. This results in a restatement of the initial music across the whole orchestra, without disrupting the mood established at the outset, one that solo clarinet, followed by other woodwind, draws to a ruminative close. The Bourrée, marked Allegro, strikes an immediate contrast with the lively rhythmic profile of its main theme and teasing suggestion of a drone bass within the texture. The central section is given to a folk-like theme for woodwind, soon rising to a brief climax before the resumption of the initial theme that, in due course, sees the piece through to a vigorous conclusion.

Richard Whitehouse

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