Notes and Editorial Reviews
An outstanding achievement.
Back in 1988 - having heard a recording by Neeme Järvi of this unknown and unprinted work - I conducted the first English performance of Stenhammar’s first symphony on the South Bank - and with a youthful Tasmin Little in her first Sibelius concerto. It struck me as wonderfully Brucknerian from its six-horn start.
Stenhammar was an iconic figure in Sweden’s musical history from the 1890s until his death. The first piano concerto is his Op.1 written in his early twenties, and inevitably showing influences upon its musical language. There’s a strong dose of Brahms laced with Chopin or Saint-Saëns in lighter passages. Its technical demands show how good a pianist he was, though by no means was he a circus trick virtuoso. It is a substantial (long) work in four movements (so too was Brahms’s second), only the infectiously skittish, Mendelssohnian scherzo disproportionately shorter than the rest of the work. I could not, nor wanted to, resist the temptation to hear it again having listened through the whole disc. The slow movement is a revelation, a beautifully lyrical essay with first signs of its Nordic origin laid out at the start in a French horn solo, the very end a magical blend of piano and the quietest controlled high and accurate string playing you’ll get to hear. The finale is by no means an anti-climax, Stenhammar has more to say in a kaleidoscope of moods ranging from scherzo-like passages (
Carnival of the Animals at one point) to a beautifully simple and rather sad song of childhood love which ends in death (a song of his own as Op.8 No.1).
The second concerto is a more dramatic, even troubled work dating from 1909 by which time Stenhammar was an established conductor. By now Sibelius was a serious force to be reckoned with, and the already self-effacing Swede was in awe of the Finn’s second symphony, causing him to have self-doubts, even withdrawing a symphony. In this work we have an extraordinary tug of war between soloist and orchestra in the matter of key, a struggle which persists through the first two (again of four movements but presented as two conjoined pairs. The
Adagio is clearly the music of a man who by now has lived and to a certain extent suffered, though Stenhammar was by now three years into his sixteen-year tenure as music director in Gothenburg from 1906 to 1922. Perhaps this explains the more joyous mood of the finale in whose key (D major) both forces are happily reconciled, with a protracted coda which will not fail to thrill.
Conductor Andrew Manze - whose booklet essay gives a fascinating account of how the original version of the first concerto came to be rediscovered in the 1980s - makes an ideally sympathetic partnership with pianist Seta Tanyel, achieving impeccable ensemble. Both are clearly devotees of this music, with Tanyel in full command of her formidable technique and making it all sound so easy, her fast passage work amazing in its clarity, while meeting head-on Stenhammar’s demands for fistfuls of notes in each hand. Manze has convincing control of his Helsingborg forces and, apart from a moment in the woodwinds at the end of the scherzo in the first concerto, draws stylish playing from them in all departments. The sound is pin-point accurate in its balance, thanks to that fine recording engineer Sean Lewis. This is highly engaging music, with both concertos worthy of a place in the concert hall, and this disc will, I hope, help the cause. It is an outstanding achievement which more than meets Hyperion’s demandingly high standards, and which finds me wanting to extend my Stenhammar conducting repertoire beyond that revelatory First Symphony twenty-two years ago.
-- Christopher Fifield, MusicWeb International
A year following his piano debut in Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, the 22-year-old Wilhelm Stenhammar penned his own first concerto, and subsequently performed it under distinctive conductors like Hans Richter and Richard Strauss. Clearly Brahms' influence informs Stenhammar's formal ambitions as well as his love for big chords and non-showy octaves, although the second-movement Vivacissimo owes not a little to Saint-Saëns' scampering effervescence, as does the more concise Second concerto's Scherzo. Whatever their influences, both concertos are serious, substantial works that offer plenty of opportunity for soloist and orchestra to shine.
Although excellent recorded versions exist--notably the Widlund/Rozhdestvensky First on Chandos and the Ortiz/Järvi No. 2 on BIS--pianist Seta Tanyel's supple virtuosity and sure command of style now take top honors. She appropriately builds her sonorities from the bottom up, while the composer's frequent tremolo chords are always varied in inflection, and never clangorous. The Second concerto's slow movement especially stands out for Tanyel's sensitive, mobile lyricism and naturally singing tone. Furthermore, conductor Andrew Manze incisively shapes Stenhammar's sonorous woodwind writing, and the Helsingborg Symphony strings boast superior presence and heft over their Malmo colleagues on BIS. Manze's enthusiasm spills over into his informative and entertainingly erudite booklet notes. What's not to recommend about this 49th volume in Hyperion's valuable Romantic Piano Concerto series?
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com