Stenhammar CD: On A Path Apart From Schoenberg

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Herbert Blomstedt and the Gothenburg Symphony perform Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2 on the maestro’s 87th birthday. (GSOplay.com)

Stenhammar: Symphony No. 2 in G minor Op. 34. Serenade in F major Op. 31. Gothenburg Symphony/Herbert Blomstedt. BIS-2424. Total Time: 83:31.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – “In these times of Arnold Schoenberg, I dream of an art far removed from Arnold Schoenberg, clear, joyful and naïve.” (Wilhelm Stenhammar, Sept. 18, 1911)

Imagine being a young Swedish composer in the early years of the 20th century, when radically new music was the order of the day in Paris, Vienna, and other European capitals. Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, Mahler, and Schoenberg were shocking audiences with music that was often dissonant, rhythmically complex, and loud. Although Sweden was far from these cataclysmic cultural explosions, Stenhammar, who had studied in Berlin and in Florence, was no doubt aware of them. Should he follow the avant-garde, then, or focus on his own roots? The path he chose is apparent in the two works on this new recording.

Stenhammar had an early success with his Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 1, written in 1893 when he was only 22 years old. Then, in 1903, a month before the premiere of his Symphony No. 1, he heard Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. No longer proud of his own first symphony, he withdrew the work, which he later referred to derisively as “idyllic Bruckner” and unworthy to be compared to the symphonies of Sibelius or anyone else, and it was neither performed again nor published during his lifetime.

While it is true that Sibelius’ Second Symphony is a towering masterpiece of astonishing originality, in retrospect Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 1 is not nearly as bad as he himself suggested. While by no means “modern” or iconoclastic, it is nonetheless well crafted, tuneful, and joyous; the opening Wagnerian horn sextet, for example, is glorious. One of the best performances available of this work is by the Gothenburg Symphony with Neeme Järvi (DG 4458572). Another excellent reading by Andrew Manze and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic is available on YouTube.

Swedish composer Wilhelm Stenhammar at the piano in 1900. (WikiCommons)

In 1906 Stenhammar was appointed artistic director of the newly formed Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, a post he held for 16 years. His Symphony No. 2 (1915) is dedicated to “my dear friends, the members of the Gothenburg orchestra.” Appropriately, this fine new BIS recording of the work conducted by Herbert Blomstedt was made with the composer’s beloved orchestra. In an interview, Blomstedt describes the symphony as “personal,” “held back,” and “aristocratic;” indeed, the work is all this and more.

Surprisingly perhaps, the piece is scored for a smaller orchestra than the Symphony No. 1, which calls for three each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, and trombones, six horns, tuba, timpani and strings. The Second Symphony requires only pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and trumpets, four horns, three trombones, timpani, and strings. For comparison, Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2 is roughly contemporary with Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5, written for an orchestra very similar in size, and Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, which requires much more percussion as well as celesta.

Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2 is generally regarded as superior to his Symphony No. 1, particularly for its extensive use of contrapuntal techniques, especially in the first and last movements. To my ears, however, the fugal writing seems to wear out its welcome. What begins as clever development of thematic material often becomes plodding and academic. I also feel that the climaxes at the end of the first and last movements, which wind up abruptly rather than triumphantly, are not fully realized. That said, this symphony is a work of substance, with some remarkably beautiful and thrilling episodes.

Blomstedt, who was born in America to Swedish parents, has held directorships with some of the world’s great orchestras including the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the Oslo Philharmonic, and the San Francisco Symphony, and at 92 remains very active internationally as a guest conductor.

This live recording of Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2, made five years ago, is representative of Blomstedt’s high standards for precision and structural integrity throughout his career; in fact, this performance could be characterized using his own description of  the symphony as “held back” and “aristocratic.” Blomstedt has never been a conductor who “lets go” with unexpected tempo changes (like, say, Furtwängler) or a raw outpouring of emotion (Bernstein). For the most part, he delivers performances that get to the essence of the music. In the case of Stenhammar’s Second Symphony, however, I did feel that he used more restraint than the composer intended. There is far more passion and exuberance in Järvi’s recording of the symphony with the same orchestra, and for this reason I would return to the Järvi recording more often than to the Blomstedt.

Stenhammar’s Serenade in F major Op. 31, composed before the Symphony No. 2, was revised in 1919. In spite of the title, it is a serious work lasting more than 37 minutes and in many respects is more forward-looking than the symphony in terms of its chromaticism. One gets a hint of Ravel and Richard Strauss in the opening Overtura, but the overall impression is of melancholy Mendelssohn. The Canzonetta, Scherzo, Notturno, and Finale movements have moments of rollicking effervescence, nearly always offset by patches of darkness. The Serenade is an unusual work that left this listener wondering what it was all about. The Gothenburg Symphony plays well, but Blomstedt seems content to let the music speak for itself.

Blomstedt has programmed Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2 recently with several orchestras including the San Francisco Symphony and the Leipzig Gewandhaus and this coming May with the Berlin Philharmonic. The May 18 Berlin performance will be broadcast live on the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for theartoftheconductor.com, www.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org), and www.myscena.org.

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