This set offers more than convenience and economy.
These performances are never less than good. In particular the readings
of the Second Symphony, piano concertos, the Serenade and Lodolezzi
Sings are supple, galvanic, generous hearted and fiery.
Both symphonies were taken down from live performances
complete with the odd moment of 'audience participation' and with applause
- in the right place. Of the two the Second Symphony has
had more limelight and recordings than the first. Strauss is often cited
as an influence but the work more often reminds me of a folksy Brahms
or Dvořák. I doubt that anyone has ever matched Järvi's boiling
intensity in the first movement. Dvořák's Eighth Symphony is an
unmistakable presence in the second movement. There are moments in this
virile and rhythmic symphony where the work seemed to be a sort
of nineteenth century doppelgänger of the Moeran Symphony. If you
must have a studio recording then by all means go for Järvi in
his DG version or the reputedly less well recorded Naxos with the RSNO
conducted by Petter Sundkvist (Naxos 8.553888). The strongest contender
all round is the classic ADD recording of the Stockholm PO conducted
by the once ubiquitous Stig Westerberg on Caprice CAP 21151.
The First Symphony spans almost 53 minutes and
touches on Schumann and, just occasionally (as in the finale), Berlioz.
Although Stenhammar claimed that it was influenced by Bruckner it is
rather too relaxed for that parallel to be entirely convincing though
the rustic chivalry of Bruckner 4 and 6 is picked up in the finale.
The work is charmingly discursive lacking Brucknerian tension and storminess.
The heart-leaping Excelsior! overture rather
resembles Elgar's Froissart and blazes and sings brightly in
this version with a much greater pastoral current than the tendency
to write this work down as a Straussian essay might lead you to expect.
It must surely have sounded magnificent in the hands of its dedicatees,
Nikisch and the Berlin Phil, who played it in Copenhagen in 1897.
Snöfrid is a work for solo soprano, mezzo
and tenor with solo violin and chorus. It hymns the virtues of duty
in the face of temptation. There is an intimacy about the writing for
chorus which softens the Wagnerian jaw-set. The tenor has a slight 'bray'
but otherwise this is agreeable music-making in the stream of the Scandinavian
serenade. It is likely to appeal to lovers of Pfitzner's Deutsches
Seele and the Schumann pictorial cantatas. Peter Mattei handles
the songful Florez and Blanzeflor (a chivalric tale) with suave
tone. Midvinter proceeds along the same tracks as Alfvén's
Swedish Rhapsodies while the low key Sentimental Romances are
handled with reticent and undemonstrative aplomb by Ulf Wallin who will
be known to some of us as the violinist in CPO's recording of the complete
Reger Violin Sonatas. These Romances would couple well with the willowy
and undramatic pastels of Sibelius's own Two Serenades.
The two piano concertos occupy disc 3 and are the only
example in the catalogue of this coupling. It would not surprise me,
given their dates and accents, if they turn up in Hyperion's romantic
piano concertos series, probably with the BBCSSO conducted by Osmo Vänskä
with Milne, Hough, Coombs or Hamelin at the piano. The epic First Piano
Concerto stands stylistically between the Grieg Piano Concerto and Brahms
Second (listen to the start of the third movement with its rustic nationalist
lilt) imposing similar demands on soloist and orchestra. This is a strong
and sturdy work with very fine inspirational writing in line with the
Stanford Second Concerto and the Bortkiewicz concertos (we desperately
need recordings of the Second and Third Bortkiewicz let alone the Cello
Concerto and Violin Concerto). The Second Concerto is also Brahmsian
but blended with early Rachmaninov. Though still an obviously romantic
effusion it sounds more 'modern' with the sort of art nouveau decorative
caprice that is to be found in the salon charmers of Alfred Hill, Frank
Hutchens, Greville Cooke and Harry Farjeon. It too is in four movements.
Ortiz (a splendid and under-recognised pianist whose Strauss Burleske
I heard with great pleasure in Liverpool a couple of years ago) and
Derwinger are able advocates. Perhaps Ortiz makes more of her chances
than Derwinger though both are very good indeed. If you were keen on
the First Concerto you might want to track down the Chandos CD (CHAN
9074) which has Mats Widlund as pianist. It has been highly praised.
However I doubt that you will feel the need to look further if you opt
for this BIS box.
The Serenade for Orchestra is presented complete
with the Reverenza movement which Stenhammar elided when he decided
that the whole work was too long. You can always programme it out if
you can remember how to do that! The Serenade is a gentle work
of singing Nordic grace drawing on the pastels and moonlit vistas of
Sibelius's Rakastava, the pulse-race of Mendelssohn's Italian
and Midsummer Night's Dream (Golovanov would have made hay with
the Overtura), the cool and warmth of Delius as in Summer
Night on the River, the lighter genre pieces of Elgar including
the Serenade for Strings, Mina and the various Saluts
and the less probing sections of Dvorak's Serenade for Strings.
One can hear where Wirén took his launch point for his own Serenade
for Strings. This is a good performance, full of healthy vigour
and yet sensitive too. Fascinatingly the Serenade has been recorded
by both Kubelik (a classic version made in 1964 and once issued on the
DG Heliodor label; now on Swedish Society Discofil SCD1115) and
Andrew Davis (a rarish Finlandia 3984-25327-2 but rosetted by the Penguin
Guide - inappositely coupled with the Brahms Second Serenade). The outstandingly
delightful Lodolezzi Sings is cut from the same material. The
long Karneval movement has a silvery long-limbed melody handled
with restraint and delicacy and pointed up by harp and mandolin solos.
It is clearly at least part inspired by Sibelius's theatre music (tr
7 6.09). The Interlude from Stenhammar's Sången
(a 45 minute cantata recorded complete on Caprice) is affecting in the
gentle manner of the Elgar miniatures with variety added by some sombre
dignified Wagnerian brass writing (tr. 8 3.03).
The sound overall is transparent and refined with plenty
of impact. Even the analogue tape of the First Symphony sounds very
well indeed and audience participation in the two live recordings is
neither extensive nor distracting.
Both the Serenade and Midvinter were
written in Italy. To this extent Stenhammar shared the Mediterranean
love affair with Peterson-Berger (Second Symphony), Nielsen (Helios)
and Sibelius (Nightride and Sunrise and Second Symphony).
The notes, drawn down in full, from the individual
CDs from which these four discs were compiled, are admirably thorough
as is BIS's wont. The authors are Per Skans, Lennart Dehn and, for the
First Piano Concerto, Alan B Ho. Each disc is packed close to capacity
- well over 75 minutes in each case. Rather like its catalogue 'partner',
the Chung/Järvi Nielsen Symphonies/Concertos (BIS-CD-614/616),
the set is listed at four discs for the price of three. I suspect that
you will be able to better even that if you shop around.
When you compare the music making of Nielsen and Stenhammar
across the two BIS sets you realise how much of a revolutionary Nielsen
was. Look at Nielsen's dates (1865-1931) and compare them with those
of Stenhammar (1871-1927). Stenhammar was abashed by the imperious example
of Sibelius. He stands a step down in bright freshness of invention
from both Sibelius and Nielsen. Here was a composer who, though born
later and died earlier than Nielsen, joyed in the whooping pleasures
of the accustomed romantic idiom and inflamed that idiom with folk voices
of his native land. In Denmark Børresen and Ludolf Nielsen may
be seen tracking a similar course. The interaction between romance and
pastoralism was enough for Stenhammar, or had to be, and it remains
a very pleasing and treasurable presence. This set is a sensational
bargain. Try it if you long to hear a nineteenth century romantic ploughing
a delightfully Scandinavian furrow.