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Wilhelm STENHAMMAR (1871–1927)
Piano Music
Piano Sonata in G minor (1890) [22:02]
Nights of Late Summer (Sensommarnätter) Op. 33 (1900-1905) [15:58]
Three Fantasies Op. 11 (1895) [15:00]
Piano Sonata in A flat major Op. 12 (1895) [23:10]
Martin Sturfält (piano)
rec. St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, 15-17 April 2007. DDD
Full tracklist at end.
HYPERION CDA67689 [76:05]
Experience Classicsonline

Stenhammar actually wrote five piano sonatas, but he considered the first three childish efforts and included only the two on this disc in his own worklist. They, along with the Three Fantasies, date from the age of about 19 to 24. Only the Nights of Late Summer can be truly considered a mature work. But if the style of the other pieces is not that of the composer we know from the more famous orchestral and chamber works, much of the composer’s personality is already in evidence.
 
The Sonata in G-minor shows Stenhammar still very influenced by Schumann, but the vitality shown in the orchestral works is already there - a feature Sturfält brings out well. The Schumann influence also generates a charming whimsicality that is not always so present in the composer’s more Nordic works. The first movement is very poetic and the Romanza even more so. The scherzo is a little more individual with an interesting trio related to the second movement and the reprise of the scherzo leads cleverly into the last movement. This last is definitely more mature - both in the emotional and structural sense - than anything that has come before.
 
A few years later Stenhammar wrote the Three Fantasies. These show him as having moved from Schumann to Brahms as an influence, especially to the passionate, intricate side of that composer. The first shows Stenhmammar using Brahmsian devices in his own way, while the second is less impressive, although again it shows charm and whimsy. The last demonstrates the composer creating themes that are more individual and which are both folk-like and complexly developed. A very beautiful piece.
 
The Sonata in A-flat comes from the next year and shows a greater conciseness and harmonic ability than in the previous works. Brahms continues to be a major influence in the first movement, but becomes a little less evident as the piece continues. In the scherzo Stenhammar seems to be attempting to see how fast he can make the pianist play and one is reminded of the fact that he was perhaps the greatest executant in Scandinavia in his lifetime. There is an attractive trio for contrast. The slow movement is again something new-solemn, and chordally built around a single motif, leading into the finale, which is energetic, but not without humor. Virtuoso elements alternate with quite gentle ones and are synthesized at the end.
 
With the five pieces of Nights of Late Summer we come to fully-developed Stenhammar. These works show a wide variety of mood and form while being laid out in a tonal structure that proceeds from C-minor to F-sharp minor. While evocative of the Swedish landscape they also tell us about the composer’s inner landscape. The opening tranquillo shows a totally different understanding of the piano than that evidenced in the earlier pieces with nocturnal brooding leading to a moment of agitation before returning to the opening atmosphere. The poco presto is in the same key of C-minor as the first piece and agitation again sets in as the piece progresses. But this time it remains to the end. The middle movement could be described as impressionistic, but in the composer’s own way - it’s rather murky and questioning. The middle section of this movement is tonally uncertain before returning to a more granitic reprise of the opening. There’s more agitation in the fourth piece as Stenhammar takes a wonderful theme and makes it progressively more disturbed through an inspired use of tonality. The last piece is rather unique - a little rondo with one section in a Sibelius-like rhythm contrasted with yet another beautiful slower theme.
 
The word for Martin Sturfält is dynamic. He attacks the fast passages of this music with tremendous energy. But the poetry does not escape him either. His sense of phrasing in the G-minor sonata is admirable and he handles the moments of Schumannesque charm in this piece and in the Op. 11 very well. His sense of overall structure is also good, although he occasionally gets lost in this regard. It is to be hoped that Mr. Sturfält will record the rest of the Stenhammar piano music or at least the mature works. The last such effort was the BIS two-disc set from 1993. The recording quality here is up to Hyperion’s usual high standards.
 
William Kreindler
 
And a further perspective by Rob Barnett
 
I am nowhere near as familiar with the Swedish composer Stenhammar as a master of the solo piano as I am with Stenhammar the creator of two symphonies and six string quartets. Hyperion and Martin Sturfält put that right with this generously timed and planned disc.
 
This is surely the music of a late-romantic whose music blends the spirits of Schumann and Brahms with the limpid essence of Scandinavian nights. Make no mistake though it is very much of the nineteenth century. If you take for example the Romanza of the G minor piano sonata there is a lovingly weighted and amorous lightness about the music. This is followed by the galloping optimism of the Scherzo and the sanguine Brahmsian exuberance of the Rondo Allegrissimo. The G minor sonata was never published but a manuscript was discovered by Martin Sturfält in the form of a handwritten copy from 1940. He then prepared a corrected performing edition and this is what we hear now.
 
Cutting forward to the Sensommarnätter we hear that Stenhammar has found Brahmsian gravitas as well as a limpid free-wheeling nimbus of lyricism. The five nights require great dexterity as well as a nicely judged sensitivity to romantic atmosphere. That can be felt at its peak in the Presto agitato. More directly-spoken and even folksy is the final Poco allegretto. Running to approximately the same timing as the Op. 33 sequence, the three Fantasies include a playful Brahmsian Dolce scherzando. In the final Fantasy there are broad presentiments of Rachmaninov alongside a more dainty Greig-like innocence.
 
The fluid romantic ethos of this music is fluently put across by Martin Sturfält who also wrote the liner-notes. He reminds us that after 1907 Stenhammar largely abandoned his own instrument except as an executant. There then followed a decade or so in which the quartets and his magnum opus the Second Symphony were written. Tragically physical and mental ill health then took hold and sapped his urge to write. In this music and in these vivacious and ursine performances there is no sign of anything other than a victorious command and a heart-direct eloquence.
 
Rob Barnett
 
Track listing
Sonata in G-minor (1890) [22:08]
1)   Allegro vivace e passionate [9:08]
2)   Romanza: Andante, quasi adagio [4:24]
3)   Scherzo: Allegro molto [2:58]
4)   Rondo: Allegrissimo [5:26]
Nights of Late Summer (Sensommarnätter) Op. 33 (1914) [15:55]
1)   Tranquillo e soave [4:30]
2)   Poco presto [2:26]
3)   Piano: Non troppo lento [2:56]
4)   Presto agitation [3:15]
5)   Poco allegretto [2:38]
Three Fantasies Op. 11 (1895) [14:59]
1)   Molto appassionato [5:04]
2)   Dolce scherzando [4:41]
3)   Molto expressivo [5:05]
Sonata in A-flat major Op.12 (1896) [23:01]
1)   Moderato, quasi andante [6:09]
2)   Molto vivace [7:17]
3)   Lento e mesto [2:12]
4)   Allegro [7:17]

 


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