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Don O’Connor
American Record Guide, March 2011

The Gavle Orchestra…put out a full-bodied sound, with refinement of tone in the vocal numbers…for a minimal investment, you get a fine sampling of a composer whose work deserves every listener it can get.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

David Hurwitz, November 2010

The performances here are all very good, but it’s the total program that makes this disc so interesting. Florez och Blanzeflor and Ithaka, both to texts by Oscar Levertin, are ballads for baritone and orchestra lasting about 10 minutes each. They belong to the same tradition as Sibelius’ Luonnotar, and the music, though hardly as distinctive as that of the Finnish master, really is very fine. Ithaka, in particular, with its evocation of a turbulent sea, is particularly atmospheric. Karl-Magnus Fredriksson has a somewhat grainy baritone that sounds very good in loud passages but turns somewhat tremulous in softer sections. This bodes best for Ithaka, with its more heroic cast.

The interlude from Stenhammar’s cantata The Song is fairly well known, and its gentle lyricism works well in this context. The Prélude and Bourrée is a world premiere, as the work (which dates from 1891) was only recently discovered. The main theme of both of its movements reveals a certain family resemblance to a tune in Grieg’s Holberg Suite—I leave it to you to discover exactly which section. Not a major piece by any means, but it’s unfailingly charming, and at nearly 15 minutes it’s by no means a mere “chip” off of the master’s workbench.

All of which brings us to the main item, the Serenade, arguably Stenhammar’s orchestral masterpiece (alongside the Second Symphony). The performance here is very good, unerringly paced by Hannu Koivula—but the truth is that the Gävle Symphony just isn’t up to the level of, say, the Gothenburg Symphony for Järvi on DG or (preferably) BIS. It’s not so much a question of technical prowess as it is sheer weight of sonority, of the strings particularly, but also the trumpets, which sound a bit timid. For example, the huge climax at figure 48 in the scherzo contains one of the work’s very few triple-forte moments, but the orchestra simply hasn’t got the necessary dynamic range. This is only evident on direct comparison to other versions of the work, and the sonics as such are just fine. So if this issue isn’t likely to bother you, I can recommend this disc, particularly for the imaginative program.

Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, November 2010

Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871–1927) was a seminal figure in the musical culture of his native Sweden. Much as the Finnish conductor Robert Kajanus had already done in Helsinki, Stenhammar animated Swedish musical life during his tenure as music director of the Gothenburg Symphony from 1906 to 1922, when he was distinguished for his far-reaching musical programs. His attempt to combine concurrent careers as pianist and composer seems to have undermined his health, accounting for his fairy early demise.

As presented in vivid display by Hannu Koivula and the small but excellent Gävle Symphony Orchestra, an organization richer and more diverse in the distinctive sound it cultivates here than we might imagine from its 52 members, we have five works showing Stenhammar’s range as a composer and his abundant lyricism. There is a love of nature and a fascination for dappled sunlight and shadow in his orchestrations that we think of as typically Scandinavian. These qualities reveal themselves most clearly in his best-known work, the Serenade in F Major, Op. 31. Though long for a serenade at 38 minutes, it avoids longeurs by the way it moves easily and deftly from one enchanting musical idea to the next.

This is the revised version in five movements—Overture/ Canzonetta/Scherzo/Notturno/Finale. Stenhammar eliminated the equally persuasive Reverenza (Reverence) movement, much as Beethoven had removed his most beautiful gem, the Andante favori, from his “Waldstein” Sonata, because it spoiled the symmetry. (Hopefully, we will have Reverenza included in some future program by this same orchestra and conductor of the composer’s music?) The Interlude to Stenhammar’s choral work The Song shows his remarkable control of polyphony without seeming unduly learned. We also have here the world premiere recording of the recently rediscovered Prélude and Bourée, yet another paean to the great out-of-doors that concludes with a rustic dance redolent of Midsummer’s Eve and “white nights” in Sweden. It bids fair to become as popular in time as the two Swedish Rhapsodies by Stenhammar’s successor in Gothenburg, Hugo Alfven.

Two fine settings of poems by Swedish poet Oscar Levertin allow us the opportunity to hear the magnificent voice of Karl-Magnus Fredriksson. A dramatic baritone whose voice is equally adept in the lyric moments as well, Fredricksson adds distinction to Florenz and Blanzeflor, the tale of a royal couple doomed to early death, and Ithaka, where we follow the poignant memories, the yearning, and the increasing emotion of the wanderer Odysseus as he approaches his native land after long absence. In the latter, Fredriksson and Koivula both do a marvelous job of gradually increasing the emotion toward its finale affirmation, then gradually dispersing it in the final postlude for the orchestra. A moment to treasure.

In all these works, we get a clear impression of the composer as one who knew from his experience as conductor exactly what to expect from each instrument of the orchestra, from the briefest sunlit utterance by a given woodwind to a noble brass chorale, including the glowing textures that a string section can produce. Indeed, if bountiful lyricism and master orchestration were all there were to composition, Stenhammar would be listed among the greatest composers of the past hundred years. As it was, he didn’t miss by much!

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2010

You would think concert promoters could find room in the repertoire for Stenhammar’s instantly pleasurable Serenade. Born in Stockholm in 1871, he was so gifted as a pianist, conductor and composer, that his attention was continually divided between them. It was his composing—of which he was almost self-taught—that suffered, his eventual output very restricted for such a gifted writer. However, two works stand above all others—the Second Symphony and the Serenade. He made sure in shape and content that the Serenade did not become regarded as a symphony, though in length it certainly has that scope. A failure when premiered, he recast the score into five movements, removing the second one. Alternating in pulse and mood, the opening is impressive, while the fourth movement, Notturno, is ravishingly beautiful. Maybe the finale is a little lightweight for that audience excitement that brings success to a work. Since the early days of LPs the great baritone, Hakan Hagegard, made Florenz och Blanzeflor one of my a cherished songs. Karl-Magnus Fredriksson is not a rival, but he possesses a nice voice and adds the required  thrill to Ithaka, an equally extended vocal score. The cantata, Sagen (The Song), was Stenhammar’s last completed major work, the disc including just the orchestral Interlude that links its two sections, The Prelude and Bouree has been discovered in Stockholm’s Swedish Music Library and is here recorded for the first time and it may well be the first performance. Probably intended for a larger work, it has an easy-going charm. The Gavle Symphony play this as if it were the world’s finest music under the conductor, Hannu Koivula, the sound—on a disc lasting over 80 minutes—is first class.

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