About this Recording
8.572259 - STENHAMMAR, W.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Sivelov, Malmo Symphony, Venzago)

Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871–1927)
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2


Wilhelm Stenhammar was born in Stockholm on 7 February 1871. Fluent on both piano and organ from an early age, he never formally studied composition, focusing instead on the piano in Stockholm (with Richard Andersson) and then Berlin (with Heinrich Barth). February 8, 1892 saw his début as pianist in Brahms’s First Piano 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 held appointments with the Stockholm Philharmonic Society (1897–1900), New Philharmonic Society (1904–6) and, above all, the Gothenburg Orchestral Society (1906–22), which he turned into the most enterprising such institution in Northern Europe. He took up an appointment at the Royal Opera in 1924, though his health was now declining and he died in Stockholm on 20 November 1927.

Although he attained early success with his First Piano Concerto (1893) and opera Festival at Solhaug (1893), Stenhammar’s output decreased markedly after 1900. This was partly owing to conducting commitments but also increasing uncertainty, notably after the failure of his second opera Tirfing (1898), over his stylistic direction. Moving away from an outwardly Wagnerian manner, he strove for an idiom that embodied his Swedish inheritance without being overtly nationalistic. A 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 series of orchestral, chamber and theatre works. His final decade saw only a few pieces as years of promoting the music of others, as pianist and conductor, irreparably took their toll.

Initially as much a pianist as composer, Stenhammar gave the première of his First Piano Concerto in Stockholm on 17 March 1894. While not his first work, it was published as his ‘Op. 1’ as an evident statement of intent. Both the four-movement layout and the initial two-note gesture reveal a debt to Brahms, but the keyboard writing and orchestration already reveal a personal voice. Despite the work’s success, Stenhammar gave up playing it in 1908; occasional performances by other pianists continued until the Second World War, when both the score and parts were destroyed in a fire. A reorchestration by Kurt Atterberg, first heard in 1946, enjoyed currency until the early 1990s, when musicologist Allan B. Ho published an edition of the composer’s original, based on a copy of the score he had discovered in Washington’s Library of Congress some years earlier.

After a Brahmsian gesture from the orchestra, which returns as a ‘motto’, the soloist launches into an impressively rhetorical passage that leads into the first theme, a brooding idea accompanied by woodwind and with an impulsive response from the strings which usher in a more equable second theme continued by the soloist. This increasingly rhapsodic writing brings a resolute orchestral codetta prior to a development centred on the first theme and which works its way, via a guarded brass response, to a reprise of the second theme. This unfolds as before, though a surging orchestral passage paves the way for an accompanied cadenza where soloist and woodwind pensively recall the second theme. Strings reiterate the motto, then the music leads into a rapid coda and peremptory close. The scherzo stands in complete contrast: a deftly scored intermezzo with the soloist partnered by woodwind and pizzicato strings, along with a central section whose fugal writing acts as a reminder of weightier issues at hand. This proves short-lived, however, and the previous music resumes, leading to a brief coda which rounds off the movement in a mood of contentment. The slow movement opens with a ruminative horn solo accompanied by pizzicato strings, passing to woodwind and strings as it assumes a more eloquent manner. The soloist duly elaborates on the theme, out of which a second (related) theme emerges in a pensive dialogue with woodwind. A reference to the first theme acts as transition to the central section, opening out expressively on strings as the mood intensifies. From here the music winds down to a coda in which string arabesques join with the soloist in a close of great delicacy. The finale begins with a suave theme for piano with woodwind, then strings, that takes on a sterner manner as brass enter. A second theme involves lower woodwind and strings, the soloist commanding matters and setting in motion a development where aspects of the first theme are discussed in a mood of tense anticipation. The first theme is reprised, this time arriving at a pause that sees the second theme transformed as a radiant woodwind chorale and taken up by the soloist in an inward cadenza. A tremolo on strings then initiates the coda, both themes being combined in a mood of expansive repose.

Undoubtedly the main reason Stenhammar gave up performing this work was that he had completed its successor, the Second Piano Concerto receiving its première at Gothenburg in 1908. Although in four movements, the piece is conceived as a single span with its initial theme the basis for those that follow. Such close-knit evolution, moreover, anticipates the Serenade [Naxos 8.572186] and the Second Symphony [Naxos 8.553888] that are Stenhammar’s crowning orchestral achievements.

The first movement begins with a stealthy piano solo which, offset by brusque asides from strings, leads into a restive theme which is then continued by the soloist in a more affirmative manner. The latter is provoked into greater activity by timpani and brass, with an intensive discussion of the theme ensuing. This winds down on lower strings to leave the soloist musing alone, but the return of the theme in its restive guise leads to a forceful orchestral climax. Tense exchanges with the orchestra bring about a virtual pause, at which point (8’15”) the scherzo begins with the capricious interplay of the soloist, woodwind and strings. This soon reaches a brief climax, initiating a more relaxed trio in which soloist and orchestra engage in call-and-response before quickly winding down in lower strings. The scherzo music now returns, the soloist having an improvisatory cadenza prior to the hushed conclusion on strings.

Without pause the slow movement commences with a searching version of the theme for the soloist, strings entering as the mood becomes more expansive. Soon their exchanges take on a more passionate manner, with the woodwind entering as the music reaches its emotional apex. Then a sudden optimism takes hold and the finale commences with a vaunting transformation of the theme for the soloist, joined by the orchestra as the mood becomes more animated. Further exchanges lead to a more measured version of the theme for brass and strings, provoking a lively response from the soloist before brass continue the earlier animation. The tempo increases apace, presaging a coda with excited exchanges between soloist and strings capped by the original theme now imperious on brass. The final pages propel the work to its vividly affirmative close.

Richard Whitehouse

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