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Stenhammar: String Quartets Nos. 3 & 4 / Stenhammar Quartet

Stenhammar Quartet
Release Date: 07/30/2013 
Label:  Bis   Catalog #: 1659  
Composer:  Wilhelm Stenhammar
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stenhammar Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Multi 
Length: 1 Hours 14 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Also available: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2 and String Quartets Nos 5 & 6

Rapt devotion and splendid tone make a very strong case.

STENHAMMAR String Quartets: No. 4 in a, op. 25; No. 3 in F, op. 18. Incidental Music to Read more class="ARIAL12bi">Lodolezzi sjunger: Elegi and Intermezzo Stenhammar Qrt BIS 1659 (SACD: 73:47)

Announced as Volume 1, this BIS release launches a new cycle of Wilhelm Stenhammar’s works for string quartet, which are six in numbered ones, plus an unnumbered one in F Minor which comes chronologically between Nos. 3 and 4, but which the composer withdrew.

Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871–1927) is one of those very late Scandinavian Romantics—in this case, a Swede—who I’ve described before as setting with the midnight sun. A close contemporary of Carl Nielsen (1865–1931), Stenhammar has been overshadowed by the great Dane, and, as a result, I think, somewhat undervalued and neglected. Only 34 entries show up for Stenhammar in the Fanfare Archive—not one of them for his quartets—compared to 205 for Nielsen, enough for him to have made it onto the “Most Reviewed Composers” page.

But one can’t blame Fanfare for the absence of entries for Stenhammar’s string quartets, a situation due mainly to the fact that there aren’t very many recordings of them to be had. The Swedish label Caprice produced a cycle on three separate CDs that dates back to 1981. It doesn’t include the unnumbered F-Minor work, and it’s divided among three ensembles, the Fresk Quartet (Nos. 1 and 5), the Copenhagen String Quartet (Nos. 2, and 6), and the Gotland Quartet (Nos. 3 and 4). Those three discs sit on my shelf along with a much more recent 2007 two-disc set on CPO, in SACD no less, with the Oslo String Quartet, containing the quartets Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 6. But if the group ever recorded the Nos. 1 and 2, it’s a well-guarded secret. Except for two or three individual recordings of one or another of the quartets, coupled with works by other composers, as far as I know, that’s about the extent of Stenhammar’s string quartets on disc.

Since the current BIS release contains the quartets Nos. 3 and 4, which are paired on disc one of the CPO set and on disc two of the Caprice set, I’m able to offer a three-way comparison.

Quartet No. 3 Ensemble I II III IV Total
Gotland Quartet 7:12 5:20 7:12 10:21 30:05
Oslo Quartet 9:17 5:11 7:46 10:39 32:53
Stenhammar Quartet 8:44 5:08 7:18 10:49 31:59
Quartet No. 4 Ensemble I II III IV Total
Gotland Quartet 8:45 5:33 5:577 10:02 30:17
Oslo Quartet 9:10 7:25 7:06 11:49 35:33
Stenhammar Quartet 9:14 6:01 6:56 10:49 33:00

What is one to make of these comparative timings? Perhaps the Stenhammar Quartet, the most recent ensemble to essay these scores, heard the Gotland Quartet’s performances and said, “That porridge is too thin.” Then they heard the Oslo Quartet’s performances and said, “That porridge is too thick. We’ll cook our porridge just right.” Tempo-wise, at least, it’s obvious that the Stenhammar Quartet takes a middle-of-the-road approach to the faster Gotland and slower Oslo Quartets.

There is nothing of a particularly indigenous Swedish or Scandinavian character to this music—such as it being based on native folk melodies—that ought to give either the Gotland or the Stenhammar’s Swedes an interpretive edge over the Oslo’s Norwegians; and yet it’s the Gotlands and the Stenhammars, with their generally more flowing tempos in the slower movements, and their scintillatingly fleet sprints through the fast movements, that make the stronger impression. Listen, for example, to the amazing Scherzo ( Presto molto agitato ) from the F-Major Quartet, in which Stenhammar, the composer, is clearly channeling the Presto movement from Beethoven’s E?-Major Quartet, op. 74. Or, listen to the Scherzo from Stenhammar’s A-Minor Quartet, which seems to combine elements of the rhythmic and dramatic agitation heard in the Scherzo ( Allegro assai ) of Beethoven’s F-Minor Quartet, op. 95, and the last movement of his op. 132 in the same key of A Minor. Beethoven, in fact, looms large over both of these amazing scores.

The Oslo Quartet, in contrast, sounds a bit sleepy in the opening movement ( Quasi andante ) of Stenhammar’s Third Quartet, and doesn’t generate near the emotional intensity of either the Gotland or the Stenhammar’s players in the indescribably poignant lament in the Adagio of the Fourth Quartet.

If there was any surprise in comparing these three versions, it was in how well the 1981 Gotland recording on Caprice has stood up. The cycle is an analog transfer from stereo tapes originally made for LP, yet the sound is so fresh and alive that this new BIS SACD improves upon it only in better separation and pinpointing of the instruments, but performance-wise, I’d have to say it’s a tossup between the two ensembles.

The Elegi and Intermezzo come from Stenhammar’s incidental music to a play of the same name, Lodolezzi sjunger (Lodolezzi Sings) by Swedish playwright Hjalmar Bergman. In describing the play as a “romantic comedy,” Bergman was obviously being darkly droll, for the story it tells is comedic in the same sort of sad way as that of the washed-up but vain Hollywood actress who tries to make a comeback, only to become an object of pity and derision. In the case of Bergman’s play, it’s not a has-been actress, but an ageing, spent operatic soprano who returns to make one last triumphant appearance, alas, before an invisible audience. I wonder if Bergman had a particular singer in mind.

The Elegi served as the play’s overture, while the Intermezzo was an entr’acte between Acts 2 and 3. Stenhammar scored the incidental music for string quartet, so it makes sense to include it in this album. In the original, however, there’s a brief part for flute in the Elegi ; here it’s absorbed into the second violin part.

If you’re not familiar with Stenhammar’s string quartets, I can’t urge you too strongly to make their acquaintance forthwith on this wonderful new BIS recording by the Stenhammar String Quartet. These are absolutely gorgeous works, considered by some to be the most important string quartets between Brahms and Bartók. I’m not sure I’d personally rate them above the string quartets by Debussy and Ravel, which also come between Brahms and Bartók, but Stenhammar’s quartets are magnificent specimens of the genre, no question about it.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

This is the first SACD from BIS in a projected complete survey of Stenhammar’s six string quartets; a seventh, in F minor and composed in 1897, was withdrawn. He had written an extensive amount of music in that year, which is when he began work on the Third Quartet, but was soon to suffer a crisis and depression after the premiere of his opera Tirfing which, whilst a critical success, was not a work with which Stenhammar was happy. The artistic malaise that assailed him was not to be lifted until several years later, and in 1900 he resumed work on the quartet.
It’s remarkable how much Stenhammar looked to Beethoven for inspiration in this and the companion Fourth Quartet. The Third shares an opus number with the first series of Beethoven’s own quartets, but it’s to the middle - the Razumovsky set and in particular to Op.59 No.1 - and to the Op.135 quartet that Stenhammar looked in this work. What he sought is perhaps less easy to define. Motifs are deliberately recalled and refashioned, the shard-like and rhythmic impulses that drove Beethoven’s quartets are immortalised in Stenhammar. At times though, he recalls Brahms too, so that there is no sense of pastiche, more of an inheritance being both honoured and transformed in the light of its new context. The context is one of flowing lyricism that admits fragmentary development, that almost quotes - embodies, enshrines, codifies, call it what you will - Beethoven’s elemental impulse. Yet not everything is steeped in a Beethovenian aura. The moto perpetuo scherzo has great vitality and a personal quality and the slow movement is a theme and variations of warmly textured and technically accomplished writing.
Dedicated to Sibelius, the Fourth Quartet was begun in 1904 and completed five years later. Its long germination was as a result of both changing compositional direction and a change in location - he travelled to Florence - and he was also performing widely. The clear references to Beethoven’s Op.132 Quartet are as striking as the allusions in the preceding quartet. Overall however this quartet offers a richer palette of influences than Op.18; the subtle and often unexpected modulations are accompanied by hints of folk dance but these are so seamlessly interwoven that they could easily escape notice. The music flows sonorously and organically, fluidly argued. An expressive slow movement - complete with mordant suspensions - is riven by a vital B section, full of contrast and colour. Once again, Stenhammar proves a master of scherzo vitality. That he vests so much time with theme and variations in his quartets is another quality in his favour. This one, that ends the Fourth, is full of change and colour, and also a strangely quixotic, almost quizzical quality too. One feels as if the composer considered the composition almost provisional. Certainly there is little element of emphatic assertion.
The later Elegy and Intermezzo come from incidental music for the stage play Lodolezzi sjunger and were written in 1919. They come from a later period in the composer’s development, therefore, but they contain a full complement of immediacy and characterisation. The Elegy is genuinely melancholic and it contrasts with the extrovert and warmly-textured Intermezzo.
With beautifully rich recorded sound, this volume makes a very strong case for the two quartets and the eponymous Stenhammar Quartet plays with rapt devotion and splendid tone.
-- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 4 in A minor, Op. 25 by Wilhelm Stenhammar
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stenhammar Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: Sweden 
Quartet for Strings no 3 in F major, Op. 18 by Wilhelm Stenhammar
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stenhammar Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: Sweden 
Lodolezzi sjunger, Op. 39: Elegi and Intermezzo by Wilhelm Stenhammar
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Stenhammar Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: Sweden 

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